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Why we nest Emotional Wellness

Why we nest

Uncovering the science behind your urge to clean and purge.

Before I had my first baby, I thought nesting was one of those pregnancy phenomena that were 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 had become a firm believer in the experience. Turns out, nesting isn’t just for the birds.

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 the 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.”

Other triggers that may contribute to your sudden impulse to wash all of the windows in your house could be excitement and anticipation for your newest family member, as well as feelings of boredom or frustration while you wait. After all, nesting is most common during the final weeks of pregnancy.

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. “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,” notes Pincott. “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 although 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.

In one human-focused study from McMaster University, researchers found that nesting serves a very similar purpose in women as it does in animals—namely as a way to control the environment before childbirth. Findings revealed nesting behaviors, characterized as bursts of energy and a compulsion to organize the house, are rooted in a need to protect and prepare for your child. Taking charge of your environment isn’t exclusive to dustpans and décor choices. The researchers also noted that many moms-to-be become more selective about who they choose to spend time with, sticking close to those they trust the most.

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 on the living room floor lint-rolling your carpet. 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. And you’re also probably a touch crazy—but at least you can blame it on the belly.