The Science of Nesting

 

It’s midnight, and you have the overwhelming urge to steam-clean your rugs, put together an IKEA bookshelf, and organize the Tupperware lids.

Nesting — the drive to sort, clean, and generally arrange life before baby arrives — is a familiar phenomenon for moms-to-be. The mood can strike anytime during pregnancy but seems particularly intense in the last trimester, when many women describe a “sudden burst of energy” and a laser-like focus on all manner of home projects that simply must get done before the big day.

Sure, it makes logical sense to prepare your life for a new baby. But it turns out that biology could also be responsible for your compulsion to attack the kitchen tile grout with a toothbrush. And your powerful attention to a list of domestic tasks may mean good things ahead for you and your baby.

Think of pregnancy as dress rehearsal for parenthood. It’s a period during which your brain and body are busy priming themselves for new challenges. Research tells us that a woman’s chemistry, and even brain structure, change when she has a baby to help her attend to and bond with her newborn — but those changes actually begin well before birth. For one, expecting moms (and lactating ones) have high levels of the hormone prolactin, which is known to stimulate nurturing and rearing behaviors. And, remarkably, pregnant moms’ brains change in anticipation of parenthood. Neurons grow in a caretaking region called the medial preoptic area, and the hippocampus sprouts more connections, which is thought to give moms a boost in spatial memory. All this will help a mother look after her little one, but when she’s pregnant (as long as nausea and exhaustion are at bay), the mom energy is often channeled into preparing the nest.

A friend of mine, now the mother of a preschooler and five-month-old, described her pregnant self as bordering on “manic” during the last trimester, as she and her family settled into a new home and prepared for the arrival of their second. “I would almost freak out, like I was having a mini panic attack,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to do things like assemble furniture — it had to be done NOW! It seemed to be chemical and made me feel like a insane person sometimes.”

She may be on to something. Not only do some of us feel the need to nest in pregnancy, we can feel it tip easily into stress and anxiety territory. Yes, we love to kick our feet up and have dad make ice cream runs, but many of us also find it hard to turn off our brains and relax. While I had two happy pregnancies, I’d still often lie wide awake at night with insomnia, mulling over pro-con lists for stroller types or mentally designing and re-designing the nursery. Indeed, some studies show that pregnant women have a certain level of hyper-awareness and elevated anxiety. For example, pregnant women are better at reading facial expressions, especially fearful and angry ones, which likely prepares us for danger and equips us to protect our young. And that slight undercurrent of stress — which keeps us on our toes, and, yes, makes it difficult to ignore the urge to wash, sort, and label boxes of tiny clothing — is not only adaptive, it could be healthy for baby too. Another study found that mild-to-moderate stress mid-pregnancy was correlated with better mental and physical outcomes for toddlers. It’s not clear why this is, but the researchers suggest low levels of maternal stress could be stimulating to the fetus.

In fact, the topic of hyper-focus and nesting in pregnancy reminded me of a conversation I had with researcher James Swain of the Yale School of Medicine about postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder. Swain found that the same brain circuits that bolster parental attachment are also involved in OCD — which makes sense, given the unwavering attention and responsibility that comes with parenthood. (In fact, pregnancy has actually been shown to increase the risk of OCD or worsen a mom’s symptoms.) Swain believes the disorder may result when a natural preoccupation with caretaking, avoiding danger, and protecting our babies develops too intensely.

Of course, dads nest too (perhaps due to similar biological caretaking drives). My husband became preoccupied with making and saving money — as many of us do when our families are growing. My friend’s husband was also obsessed with ensuring everything was safe: replacing air filters and smoke detector batteries and populating the house with fire extinguishers. Another friend’s husband channeled his energy into food preparation, deciding all of a sudden that he would cook every recipe cover-to-cover in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook.

Male or female, the nesting instinct will reveal itself differently for each of us. As long as it doesn’t wipe you out completely, I say harness the energy when it comes, if it makes you feel productive and better prepared for baby. Just remember that even though you haven’t met your child yet, deep in your brain — and in ways that will alter you permanently — you are becoming a parent already.

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