Basic instincts

Mystifying new-mom urges and their unexpected origins.
By Ginny Butler

What’s happening to me? I want to lash out irrationally whenever I sense a threat to my child’s well-being, and when I tell my baby, “I could just eat you up!” I almost mean it. Have I completely lost my grip? Not likely—you’re simply a hormonal mama getting to know her new self. Read on for explanations of some of your most peculiar impulses.

babyfeetsThe urge: If I suspect my baby’s safety is in jeopardy, I go into overprotective “mama bear” mode. I feel moved to anger or even violence if someone harms my baby. Why?

Where it comes from: Sarah B. Hrdy, PhD, noted anthropologist and author of Mother Nature and Mothers and Others, calls this behavior “lactational aggression.” Nursing mammals, human and nonhuman, tend to exhibit more aggression in protecting their young than those who do not nurse. Some studies have found that nursing mothers also maintain lower blood pressure when responding to threats, suggesting that the hormones released during breastfeeding render moms better able to respond aggressively but calmly to threats, overcoming the fear or anxiety that might normally inhibit aggression.

What to do about it: The protective urge isn’t one you would want to suppress, or at least not completely. While you do need to check yourself before you pound on a kid for bumping into your stroller (keep calm and carry on, please), it’s reassuring to know that if a real threat came up, you would be ready to protect your baby and yourself.

The urge: I have to check on my baby constantly during the night. I wake at the slightest noise and run to make sure he’s still breathing. Why am I so paranoid?

Where it comes from: Your child represents a “huge metabolic and genetic investment,” says Craig H. Kinsley, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the University of Richmond. “Like any significant investment, protection is imperative,” so you’re going to experience anxiety for your baby’s well-being. Pilyoung Kim, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Denver, notes that while increased concerns about the baby can lead to distress and anxiety, “‘parental preoccupation’ with their own babies is very important for parents to develop deep emotional bonds with the babies.”

What to do about it: You will naturally worry about your child, from now until your dying day. Fortunately, your senses won’t always be in hyperdrive, looking for any signal that something might be wrong even while you’re trying to sleep. Kim says, “Over the course of the first year after baby’s birth, parents report that the heightened levels
of anxiety and preoccupation gradually decrease and positive feelings … increase.”
In the meantime, experiment to find the sleeping arrangement that works best for your family. If baby is out of your room, turn your monitor’s volume down to middle-range, which will pick up cries but not every little squeak that might send you into predawn hysterics.

The urge: Why do I feel compelled to nibble my baby’s ear, chew on his chubby thighs or smother him with kisses?

Where it comes from: The hormone oxytocin (aka “the love hormone” or “the cuddle chemical”) plays a big role in reproduction and mother-infant bonding. Oxytocin is present during arousal, released during orgasm, and produced when nursing and other skin-to-skin contact takes place between parent and baby. It can make you feel a little giddy and leave you wanting more. “Finding one’s baby a source of sensuously wonderful feelings is pretty typical of mammals,” says Hrdy. Touch is important in helping baby develop his own nervous system and creating a strong, lasting parent-child bond. Kinsley points to studies performed with rats which have shown that a lack in physical touch can lead to “deficits in sociosexual interactions” later in life, evidence of the importance of loving touch at an early age.

What to do about it: Hug and kiss, kiss and hug! And breastfeed if you can. Skin-to-skin contact is great for mom and baby, leading to brain growth for the both of you, so get close and cuddle to your heart’s content (but no biting!).

The urge: My husband says I’ve become bossy and controlling at home. Even though I would like his help, I find myself taking over almost all aspects of baby care. Why is it
so hard to share control?

Where it comes from: Kinsley describes mommy takeover from an evolutionary perspective: “Since males were likely to be injured or die given what males did, it helps to be looking out for one’s self-interest. … A female too reliant on the male’s help would be unable to cope effectively with his loss.” It’s a scenario that applies to mothers of many species, and perhaps to our cave woman predecessors, whose husbands were out hunting game, not sitting at desks.

What to do about it: While this mother-takes-all strategy might be OK for some mammals, we humans, who can generally expect our males to avoid predators and live long lives, need to use our heads to overcome these instincts. You want your baby
to have a hands-on dad, right? And you don’t want to push away the man who gave you this darling child, correct? Encourage him to get involved, even if he doesn’t do things just your way, and make a conscious effort to share the new-baby enjoyment as well as the responsibilities.

The urge: Why do I lactate whenever I hear a baby’s cry, whether it’s my own baby or not?

Where it comes from: Kinsley calls this response a “conditioned reflex.” The brain is sensitive to stimulus-response connections, and you’ve subconsciously learned that hearing a cry should lead to milk letdown. There are also a couple hormones at play here—prolactin to produce milk and oxy-tocin to achieve letdown. The involuntary conversation taking place between your brain signals and hormones can lead to embarrassing leakage.

What to do about it: Wear nursing pads when you’re out in public. You can’t easily shut off a reflex, so instead of fighting nature, just learn to live with it, laugh about it, and take solace in the fact that we’ve all been there.

The urge: When my newborn cries, I can practically feel my nerves frying. I can’t focus on anything but getting that noise to stop. Why does the sound of my baby’s cry affect me this way?

Where it comes from:  Kim says, “Research suggests that baby crying sounds activate several brain regions that are important for mothers to respond to their baby’s needs appropriately.” Thus, when we hear our baby’s cry, we can’t help but react. Crying is also baby’s main form of communication and his strongest survival  tool. It’s through crying that baby expresses needs, and we are biologically wired to respond. A cry that is higher in pitch indicates a greater level of discomfort or pain; this desperate cry can raise the parents’ heart rate and blood pressure, making them feel an even more urgent need to respond.

What to do about it: Calm baby by responding to her needs—feed her when she’s hungry, warm her when she’s cold, change her when she’s dirty, hold her when she’s in need of comfort. If you have an ultra-sensitive baby prone to crying even when her needs appear to be met, first check with your pediatrician to make sure baby isn’t complaining of a health condition, and then seek help from your support system. Family and friends may be willing to take turns holding baby for a while so you can go for a walk and clear your head (literally—your brain needs a break from sending urgent Attend to baby! signals). And if you’re alone with your crying baby, feeling like your nerves are about to snap, it’s OK to put her in her crib for a while until you can calm down.

The urge: I have never been a “baby person” … until I became a parent. Now I melt over babies, especially mine. What happened?

Where it comes from: Late in pregnancy and in the months following delivery, women experience growth in the areas of the brain associated with maternal motivation and interest in infants. Studies also show possible growth in the prefrontal cortex, the planning and decision-making part of the brain. These increases in gray matter mean mom is more capable of—and interested in—taking care of a baby than she was prepregnancy.

What to do about it: When someone warns you that women’s brains turn to mush after they become moms, you can laugh it off because you know better. Your brain has grown and made you more competent, well-rounded and responsible than you were before. As a result of baby-rearing, you are, in fact, a more experienced and developed person than you might have been otherwise. Stand tall!

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Posted in Motherhood, Parenting