Jenna Greenspoon was worried. Something wasn’t right with her two-year-old son, Jonah. She would watch him, like all moms watch their kids, and she could see that he was losing "focus" at strange times, like when he was walking down the stairs, or in the middle of a music class. “He would just stop in his tracks and zone out,” she says. “It didn't last for long periods of time, but it didn't feel right to me.”
After mentioning this during a regular checkup, her son’s doctor called Greenspoon to tell her everything was fine. “I went back to my desk after the call, but I just had this feeling that something was off,” Greenspoon recalls. “Then the ‘mama bear’ claws came out.” The 34-year-old called the doctor back and said she wanted to do further testing with a specialist.
When the test results came back, her son, now 8, was diagnosed with epilepsy — a treatable condition, and one Greenspoon suspected her son had all along. “I understand these are medical practitioners, but I need to know that they’ll trust my maternal instinct,” says Greenspoon, owner of Savvy Sassy Moms. “No one knows better than a child’s mom when something’s not okay. I would have loved to have been wrong, but I was right.”
If you ask Greenspoon or many other mothers, they’ll tell you that maternal instinct is an unexplainable phenomenon that kicks in sometime after they give birth. It gives them the power to know when their children are sick or need something specific, even if they’re far away. It's a superpower of sorts, created to safeguard against life’s hazards, from measles to schoolyard bullies.
But recently, the concept of maternal instinct has been given a closer look. Some experts are now saying that the phenomenon is not only unproven — it may also be downright harmful.
During childbirth and breastfeeding, the brain releases something known as oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone." In a study in the journal Nature, researchers found that mice that were injected with oxytocin — as well as mice that had given birth and therefore been exposed to the hormone naturally — were more likely to rescue baby mice who cried than mice mothers that hadn’t been exposed to the powerful hormone. The researchers took this to be an indication that in the animal kingdom, moms are more primed to respond to children.
Oxytocin changes the way neurons fire in parents, says Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, the study's author and a neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute for Mind, Brain, and Behavior. “Our study looked at the auditory cortex, the hearing center of the brain — an area that responds when babies cry," she says. “It became more sensitive to babies crying after the birthing process, when oxytocin was released.”
Marlin relates to this finding. "After I gave birth to my daughter, the sound of a baby crying invoked a different response,” she says. “I’d start to lactate, and, although my husband could sleep through the baby crying, I would hear it the minute she started whimpering.”
The “hardcore interpretation” of these findings is that a genetic or biological impulse “tells” the body how to respond to an infant, explains Robert Froemke, PhD, Marlin’s co-author. “But philosophically,” he adds, “maternal behavior, like any behavior, is learned. We can always be better parents if we apply ourselves, instead of waiting for instinct to kick in.”
In other words, there’s some evidence that the desire to take care of our young is instinctual (crying inducing lactating, for instance). But ultimately, we’re the ones who choose to act on that biological tug — or not. “It’s one thing to recognize a child is in distress, it’s another to know what to do,” Froemke says. “I didn’t have an innate knowledge of how to change a diaper. That, I had to learn.”
“I’m not a fan of the idea of maternal instinct because it sounds like we should have this instinctual knowledge of how to take care of our kids,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a Princeton, New Jersey psychologist and the contributing editor of What’s My Child Thinking. “No one has innate knowledge. We learn from trying different things. From seeing what works, reading up, and doing the job.” The idea that you can go in cold, yet know naturally what to do does a disservice to parents who might struggle, Kennedy-Moore says.
It also may put extra pressure on moms postpartum, a time when their hormones are already affecting their bodies and emotions, adds Rebecca Weinberg, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the director of clinical operations in the perinatal depression program at Allegheny Health Network.
“Maternal instinct is a harmful idea because the message that moms get is: They should trust all of their thoughts,” Weinberg says. But that’s not always the best idea. She says many moms experience anxiety postpartum. Their “instincts” may tell them to stay awake all night, watching their baby sleep to make sure they keep breathing. That’s not realistic, or even a good idea. “We want to teach women to evaluate their thoughts and instincts, and reframe them with accurate information,” Weinberg says.
Another downside? The notion is, by nature, an exclusive one. If used to describe a biological phenomenon, it leaves out at least half the parenting population (fathers), not to mention adoptive mothers and some trans parents. Beyond the lack of inclusivity, Kennedy-Moore emphasizes there’s no proof that the instinct to protect a child is rooted in biology. She believes in something more akin to a “parent’s intuition.” She says this intuition is “a gut feeling we act on based on a summary of our knowledge and experience.” So, maybe Greenspoon did have some internal barometer telling her that her son Jonah wasn't okay — but Kennedy-Moore would argue that that was based on her knowing him intimately and trusting her instincts, not a magical internal force.
Plus, all people produce oxytocin — that hormone researchers such as Froemke and Marlin say might be behind mother’s intuition. A 2017 study found that fathers got a boost of the hormone when they looked at pictures of their toddlers. This occurred in regions of the brain that were associated with reward.
Marlin has seen this in action. Her biological parents were foster parents to many children, who she called her brothers and sisters. To her, family was who you jumped on the trampoline next to and who took care of who. “You don’t need to have a baby from your body [to have mother’s intuition],” Marlin says. “I saw that with my parents who did not birth all their babies, but nurtured from their hearts. I've learned that you don’t have to go through this experience of childbirth to be an excellent caregiver of a child... You don’t have to give birth to have oxytocin do its work. Biology has you covered.”