Have you ever seen a pair of house finches creating a nest? Somehow, both the mother and father know they’re expecting, and they take great care to find a protected site and gather all the materials they’ll need to build a safe and cozy nest for the mother to lay her eggs. The mother finch sits on her eggs to keep them warm for around two weeks, while the father goes to search for tasty morsels to feed her; just a few days after their eggs become hatchlings, mom and dad instinctively trade duties– one keeping close watch over the chicks, the other finding them food – until their now-fledglings are ready to take flight on their own.
It’s a beautiful thing to witness, but it isn’t just for the birds. As a perinatal psychologist, I’ve worked with women who suddenly had the urge to rearrange every item in their home at 39 weeks, who spent hours scouring every nook and cranny in their home with a toothbrush while in labor, and counseled couples through seemingly small spats (“he still hasn’t hung the shelves I want in the baby’s room!”) All clearly related to a woman’s innate instinct to “nest” in preparation for birth.
So what causes the ‘nesting’ phenomenon that many women suddenly feel late in pregnancy? There are two hormones believed to be primarily responsible for nesting: progesterone and prolactin. Both are associated with bonding and warm-and-fuzzy feelings, but it is prolactin (also the hormone required for breastfeeding successfully) that spikes dramatically in the few weeks before birth. Many women report feeling a sudden burst of energy and an all-encompassing need to make everything perfect for their newborn’s arrival as their prolactin levels soar and their bodies register the message that birth is imminent.
As a mother-of-four, I experienced a powerful urge to nest before the birth of each of my children, although the target of those nesting instincts definitely changed with each child. With our first child, Yosef, my husband and I spent countless hours decorating his nursery and amassing all the “gear” we were told we’d need. With our second, Dena, I already had all the gear, so my attention went to the house – I remember thinking certain rooms needed a new coat of paint, and I badly wanted to rearrange all our furniture! With our third, Tamar, I was obsessed with hanging pictures of our family around the house, and with number four, Hudi – my first homebirth – my focus was on keeping our home clean and tidy for his arrival. (Remember, by this point I already had three young children.) By Sunday bedtime our house was typically such a mess and I longed for the relief of Mondays, when I could restore order once again. Guess who ended up going into labor in the wee hours between Sunday night and Monday morning?
After notifying our care team at around two a.m., my husband and I dashed madly through the house like synchronized tornadoes – we ran downstairs and started loading the dishwasher, hid still more dirty dishes in the oven, and picked up after Yosef, Dena and Tamar(no small task) until we finally had to face the reality that our house was presentable enough for a newborn, and it was time to focus on the main event. Hudi never said anything, but I’m sure he appreciated how clean our house looked for his arrival!
Fathers, partners and friends can help nesting women in many ways:
* Acknowledge and validate that “nesting” feelings and behavior are perfectly normal, and a positive sign that the expectant mother’s body is doing what it needs to do in preparation for birth and beyond;
* Understand that “nesting” is primarily controlled by strong hormones that do NOT stick around forever – if the mom-to-be suddenly becomes the world’s biggest nag, rest assured, it IS just a phase;
* Help with physically taxing tasks, like assembling or moving furniture or reaching up and down to place baby’s things in their assigned place – a woman close to birth may want to play her own version of Extreme Home Makeover, but what she needs most is rest and relaxation.
* If the mom-to-be doesn’t show signs of nesting, don’t be concerned – many women don’t experience ‘nesting’, or their ‘nesting’ may manifest in a way that isn’t obvious even to those who know her best.
Dr. Alyssa Berlin, PsyD., Berlin Wellness Village, and an official PAM Adviser
Please remember that PAM is a mom blog from a mom’s perspective and experience, co-founder by two moms. Some of our authors have advanced degrees and medical or clinical licenses, however, PAM is NOT providing medical or mental health advice. We encourage you to talk to your own medical professionals directly regarding any medical questions or concerns that you may have.