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The Psychology of Nesting


Image by Jenny Quicksall Photography

Many new mothers have entertaining “nesting” stories to share about when they were pregnant. Nesting refers to an instinct in pregnant animals to prepare a home for their upcoming newborn. Humans are not the only animals to nest, but for us it typically occurs sometime between months 5 and 8 of pregnancy and is characterized by a strong urge to clean, organize and tidy the home. “I nested like crazy when I was pregnant with Noah,” said Jennifer a mother from LA. “I reorganized so many areas of my house that my husband initiated a ‘one area at a time’ rule! I even organized everything at work. Never had my classroom closets been so tidy…and then I bought my older son’s clothes through the next 6 months, just in case.” Sometimes a characteristic of nesting is that the mommy-to-be will become very particular about the company she keeps. “For the last month of my pregnancy, I just wanted to stay home and be around family. Not my typical personality,” reported Kate, mother of 2-year-old Sophia.

The recent research behind nesting is that it is a primal instinct that goes back thousands of years. According to a 2013 study by psychologists Marla V. Anderson and M.D. Rutherford, published in journal Evolution & Human Behavior, this obsessive behavior is not irrational, but a result of a system to protect and prepare for the unborn baby. The study states that preparing a safe environment helps promote bonding and attachment between the mother and infant.

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While much of the scientific research exploring the psychology behind nesting is relatively new, I find it interesting how similar these findings are to D.W. Winnicott’s notion of “primary maternal preoccupation” that he published back in 1956. Donald Woods Winnicott was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst who reported that a special mental state of the mother in the perinatal period (he initially reported it as almost an illness) involves a greatly increased sensitivity to and focus upon the needs of her baby. He went on to say that this preoccupation, while obsessive in nature, enables the mother to put herself in the infant’s place, thereby reading his signals and meeting his needs. Winnicott believed that this is a state that the mother will experience and then recover from in order to create and sustain an environment that will meet the physical and psychological needs of her baby. It begins towards the end of pregnancy and continues through the first few months of the infant’s life.  It is through this primary maternal preoccupation that bonding and attachment begin.

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So it seems as if recent scientific research is supporting what psychologists have theorized for decades. Plus, I believe it is comforting for pregnant women to know that their sudden desire to alphabetically label everything in their kitchen cabinets does not mean that they have gone off the deep end! They are psychologically preparing for the most wonderful, challenging job ever—motherhood.

By Jill Campbell, Psy.D., Staff Psychologist at The Pump Station & Nurtury

Special thanks to photographer Jenny Quicksall Photography (Jenny Q) for the beautiful image, all rights reserved. Disclaimer: The Pump Station and Nurtury is a presenting sponsor for the Pregnancy Awareness Month (PAM) Campaign 2015.  The opinions expressed by The Pump Station and Nurtury, Jill Campbell, and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of PAM or any employee thereof. PAM is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by The Pump Station and Nurtury, and Jill Campbell.  Always consult with your medical provider regarding any personal health questions or decisions (including nutrition, diet, and exercise).

Jill Campbell, nesting, postpartum, Pregnancy, Pregnancy Awareness Month, pregnancy hormones, psychology of nesting, The Pump Station

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