The Nesting Instinct: What Expectant Mothers Should Know
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 wardrobe. Or maybe even to renovate your entire kitchen, which up until now has suited you just fine. What's going on?
You're probably 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. Knowing why the nesting instinct happens and how to keep it in check will make preparing for your new little one a healthy, stress-free, and enjoyable experience.
What Causes a Nesting Instinct?
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, M.D, 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, M.D., 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.
Different Levels of Nesting Instincts
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."
Practical Advice for Nesting
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. Ellie Miller and Melissa Gould of Ellie & Melissa, The Baby Planners (thebabyplanners.com), share some other pieces of advice.
Make a List: Write down everything you need (and want) to do before the baby arrives, even if you've already done it. "It's gratifying to cross things off a list and track your progress," says Miller. To keep tasks in perspective, consider dividing your list into must-do's and like-to-do's.
Tackle Your Must-Do’s First: Though you may dream of crocheting your baby's first blanket or refinishing your grandmother's dresser for the nursery, your newborn will survive without these. "Start with the practical things," advises Gould. Having a properly installed car seat, a stockpile of diapers, and a handful of washed and ready outfits are must-do-firsts.
Focus on Food: "Having meals at the ready makes coming home from the hospital with the baby less stressful," Miller says. If you have the time and energy, consider making and freezing your favorite entreés and snacks to help you through the first few weeks.
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.
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?
Prioritize Yourself: Grab a pedi. Or a decaf latte. Or just a nap. To keep from getting overwhelmed, balance your "to-do's" with some "for-you's." "While nesting is all about getting everything exactly the way you want it to be for the baby, keep in mind that it's important to take care of yourself before the arrival," Gould says.