The "Nesting Instinct"
Your due date is getting closer, and suddenly you're feeling a burst of high energy -- and an inexplicable desire to clean every closet in the house. Or to color-code your baby's layette. Or maybe even to renovate your entire kitchen, which up until now has suited you just fine. What's going on? Relax! You're experiencing the infamous "nesting instinct," a domestic urge that can strike pregnant women around the start of the third trimester and intensify in the days before birth. Weird? Definitely. But it's a very real phenomenon -- and knowing why it happens and how to keep it in check will make preparing for your new little one a healthy, stress-free, and enjoyable experience.
Blame It on Biology
All female mammals begin preparing their surroundings for a newborn in advance of its birth -- and humans are no exception. "It's nature's way of ensuring that the environment we bring a child into will be safe, warm, and welcoming," says Parents advisor Hilda Hutcherson, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, in New York City. No one knows exactly what prompts the behavior, but experts suspect that hormones play a big role. "During pregnancy, your body produces increasing amounts of oxytocin and prolactin, both of which are thought to be responsible for maternal bonding," says Louann Brizendine, MD, director of the Women's Mood & Hormone Clinic at the University of California at San Francisco and author of The Female Brain. "These hormones reach peak levels in the last month of pregnancy." Other medical experts attribute nesting to a primal instinct that harks back to a time when physical preparation of one's surroundings was necessary for a safer childbirth.
Women experience the nesting urge to varying degrees. For some, it's extreme. "I was so obsessed with cleaning in my third trimester that I actually took apart my vacuum to sanitize all the parts," says Jessica Nelson, a mother in Huntington Beach, California. For others, it's far more subtle: Maybe they hole up in the nursery alphabetizing books. And some women don't feel any urge at all, preferring to spend their last weeks relaxing -- something they won't get to do once the baby comes home.
Intense nesting is often seen more in first-time moms, says Dr. Brizendine. "Women who've already been through childbirth tend not to get as obsessed with preparing for a new baby." The lack of a nesting urge can be perfectly normal in first-time mothers too, but it also might be a sign of anxiety. "Some women who are worried about the labor, the delivery, and their baby's health don't let themselves nest because they're too preoccupied with what might go wrong," explains Dr. Hutcherson. "I tell these moms to just make sure that they have the basics, like diapers, bedding, and a car seat, before the baby arrives."
The desire to feather the nest can be useful because when you get things done in advance, you'll have more time to recover and nurture your baby after the birth. Just be sure to consider these guidelines before getting to work.
Safety first. Doctors warn against certain types of projects that can pose serious health risks to pregnant women. For starters, you don't want to subject yourself to fumes from cleaning products and paints, which can be harmful to you and your baby. Heavy lifting is also a big no-no. Expectant mothers are at a greater risk for straining ligaments and muscles because they have increased levels of relaxin, a hormone that loosens the joints to allow for the birth of the baby.
Think strategically. If you can swing it, channel your nesting urges into chores that will make life easier once you bring the baby home. A great game plan: Cooking and freezing a few meals so you'll have food at the ready when you return from the hospital.
Know when to call it quits. If your muscles feel tired or achy after you've been cleaning or decorating, take that as a sign that you're overexerting yourself, then stop and take a rest. Don't be afraid to delegate tasks to your husband. Most likely, he'll be excited to pitch in to make your home a welcoming place for your new baby. Who says nesting is something only moms can enjoy?
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Parents magazine.