Have you suddenly, mysteriously turned into a neat freak? Your nesting instinct may be kicking in--learn to channel it safely.


A Phenomenon

Organization is not my strong point. I keep tax receipts and yoga-center brochures in the same folder, and my closet floor is a gnarly jumble of shoes and gloves. One frantic morning, I even tossed my wallet in the refrigerator and slipped my lunch into my purse. (No, I learned, bus drivers do not accept turkey on rye as payment.)

Then, while I was pregnant, my attitude suddenly did a 180. I opened my medicine chest one day and gasped at the tangle of bandages, tweezers, and bottles within. How had I lived like this? I set everything shipshape -- then cleaned the sink and tub. As I was scouring the tiles with a toothbrush, my husband walked in. "What on earth are you doing?" he gasped, peering around in disbelief.

That's when I realized: I was nesting!

Maybe you've heard of this behavioral phenomenon before -- or are in the throes of it right now. The overwhelming urge to clean and organize your home often strikes in mid- to late pregnancy, turning even the most laid-back housekeeper into a mop-wielding maniac. Luckily, there are ways to channel this burst of energy constructively -- so stop ironing your baby's socks for a minute, and learn how.

Basic Instinct

No one knows exactly what causes nesting. "But all pregnant mammals seem to do it, and there appears to be a good reason for it: Making a safe, warm, and comfortable place for your young increases their chance of survival," says Marilee Hartling, R.N., coordinator of infant mental-health services at the department of psychiatry's Early Childhood Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles. Pregnancy hormones might play a part -- certain ones have been shown to prompt nurturing, motherly behavior in animals.

In humans, a pregnancy milestone may also spur the change: Nesting sometimes starts right around month five, when a mom-to-be feels her baby flutter inside her for the first time. "I've come to regard it as a woman's inner voice, recognizing that her life is about to change drastically," says Cathryn Tobin, M.D., a pediatrician and author of The Parent's Problem Solver. "In the spare moments they have left, many mothers feel driven to get their home in order."

Sweeping Changes

While scientists debate what makes moms-to-be nest, experts agree: The urge is very real -- and strong. "Probably 99 percent of the pregnant women I see have it," Hartling says. "They stack and restack their baby's clothes, clean their houses like mad, and pack and repack their hospital bag." Dr. Tobin agrees, adding that "many mothers-to-be experience an even more intense surge of energy near the end of pregnancy, like a sprinter at the finish line."

That was certainly true for Jessica Piork, of Franklin Square, New York. "A month before my due date, I went into overdrive, cleaning out the linen closet, doing piles of laundry, and buying new curtains," she recalls. "After my due date passed and I still hadn't given birth, I went outside and raked leaves. My neighbor thought I was on drugs!"

Home Alone

As your due date nears, you may feel increasingly reluctant to leave your nest at all, shunning shopping trips and brunch with friends to putter around the house.

Like nesting itself, no one knows what causes this behavior. It could be that, faced with the uncertainties of childbirth, you yearn to be among familiar things -- or that the wonder of what's going on inside your body has left you less interested than usual in what's going on outside your door.

Though it's fine to be a homebody during this time, "make sure to keep in regular touch with friends and loved ones, since socializing helps you manage your stress," says registered nurse Marilee Hartling. Enjoy a candlelit dinner with your husband, or invite the girls over for popcorn and a rented movie. Either way, you'll get the benefits of their company while enjoying the comforts of home.

Neat Ideas

When nesting reaches a fever pitch, it's crucial to be careful. "Giving birth takes tremendous stamina, and you need to conserve energy for it," Dr. Tobin cautions. So indulge your instincts, but do it sensibly by following these steps.

  • Stay in touch with your feelings. "Some women go into a cleaning frenzy because they're anxious about childbirth and parenthood, especially if this is their first baby," Hartling says. Explore some other ways to deal with your nervousness: "Try a yoga class, write in a journal, or see if your hospital offers a support group for expectant parents," she suggests.
  • Choose low-key activities. Now is not the time to rearrange furniture, climb a ladder to hang pictures, or refinish an antique rocking chair (which could expose you to lead paint or toxic fumes). Instead, think about starting a pregnancy scrapbook, organizing your family photos, or doing a needlework project, like knitting a baby sweater.
  • Give yourself a break. Listen to your body's signals: If you're getting tired or achy, sit down for a little while and rest.

One last piece of advice: You're not in this alone! Even if your partner hasn't been bitten by the cleaning bug, he can still pitch in with your projects. Parents, siblings, and pals may also be more than happy to assist you. It'll give you good practice delegating--something you'll have to do a lot of once you become a brand-new mom.

Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the March 2003 issue of Parents magazine.

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