“All new mothers have a nesting instinct, even human mothers who haven’t any idea how to build a nest. While human mothers are waiting for their babies to be born, their nesting instinct causes them to do the silliest things, such as taking all the pots out of one cabinet and all the pans out of another and switching them. Human mothers don’t know why they are doing this except that some little voice in their heads is saying, ‘Keep busy! Keep busy!’“
—excerpt from the children’s book Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant
Before I had my first baby, I thought nesting was one of those pregnancy phenomenons that was exaggerated just to make for a good story. Surely women weren’t really possessed to scrub down the tops of their refrigerators and alphabetize all the bookshelves in their houses while hefting around a giant midsection, right? It sounded too bizarre to be true.
Fast-forward to my eighth month of pregnancy. One night I woke from a dead sleep, sure in my bones of one thing and one thing only: The furniture in our living room needed to be rearranged. In fact, I was convinced that doing so was the first step to organizational nirvana, future parenting success, and possibly world peace. The next day, my husband spent the better part of three hours dragging bookshelves, a couch, a loveseat and an entertainment center to different walls while I stood in the middle with my swollen ankles and melon belly shaking my head and saying, “Hmm, no, I think it needs to be swapped around the other way.” In the end (much to my husband’s chagrin), everything ended up right where it had started—except my feelings about the legitimacy of nesting. I was now a firm believer in the experience.
Origins of an oddity
So just what the heck is going on in the minds of gestating mamas that makes us act this way? Jena Pincott, science writer and author of Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies? speculates that the instinct to nest precedes even our hunter-gatherer cavewomen days and is actually a broader, multispecies phenomenon. “All mammals seek a safe, calm, and well-fortified place in which to give birth and protect a newborn —and we’re no exception.” Of course, it’s not just mammals: Birds gather sticks, grass, mud and even bits of trash to create the space in which they will sit to incubate and hatch their eggs—nesting in the most literal sense.
The usual suspects
A long evolutionary trail back to our foremothers isn’t all that’s responsible for the incontestable need to clean out each hole in your bathtub’s jet filter with a toothpick. There’s also the common culprit behind most of the weird things that happen during pregnancy to consider: hormones. Pincott explains, “The pregnancy hormones progesterone and prolactin are both strongly associated with kinship, bonding and other warm fuzzy feelings. Prolactin in particular makes us calmer, lowers our sex drive, and decreases our yearning for novelty. Generally speaking, it turns our focus inward to family, friends, house and home. Progesterone levels rise after conception and remain high throughout the pregnancy; this hormone thickens the uterine lining and keeps it intact. Prolactin is required for breastfeeding and rises steeply in the latter months of pregnancy—coinciding with intense nesting.”
More than mere madness
It turns out that there also may be a longer term reason for these hormones to flood us with that get-prepared-for-baby-now feeling. Studies conducted on rats and rabbits show that the nesting process is an important precursor to their mother-baby bond later on. Pincott notes, “When researchers remove or violate the nesting materials in a pregnant rat’s home cage, she’s likely to become a troubled parent—even dragging, dropping and stepping on her newborn pups. If a mother rabbit can’t prepare her nest before giving birth, she’s generally not successful in raising her babies. Rabbits that fail to build their nest are thought to have a deficiency in prolactin.” However, Pincott cautions that though animal research may shed light on the matter, “Humans haven’t been the subjects of many nesting studies. … For humans, nesting is culturally triggered as much as it is hormonally triggered.” It’s likely that the power of suggestion from media and marketing has set off more than one closet cleanout and shopping spree in modern times—an influence with which rats and rabbits don’t typically contend.
The moral of the story
There are bona fide, scientific reasons to explain your out-of-character behavior, and the experience is actually beneficial. Like Pincott says, “Nesting helps us psychologically brace ourselves for the upcoming change in our life. For me personally, changing my habitat was a shocking cue. Confronted with bare walls and a stocked fridge, it hit me: I’m having a baby!” Remind yourself (and your partner) of this next time you find yourself in a compromised position lint-rolling your carpet on the living room floor. Reassure yourself that you’re not weird or crazy. You’re simply carrying out an age-old practice dictated by inherited behavior and naturally occurring chemicals in the brain.
OK, and you’re also probably a touch crazy. But at least you can blame it on the belly.