Is maternal instinct a fact or a myth? ‘Stop telling women that they will know what to do’

What’s the worst thing you could say to a new mum? To CNA Women editor Penelope Chan, it’s assurance that they will “just know” what to do.

“I think the worst thing that you could say to a friend after she’s had a baby is simply to just tell her ‘Don’t worry, you’ll know what to do.’ It’s just not true,” she said in a recent episode of the Womankind podcast, which explored the concept of maternal instinct and whether it’s a fact or a myth.

Silvia Wetherell, a perinatal mental health counsellor at Alliance Counselling in Singapore who appears as a guest on the episode, agreed with her. One of the best things you can do for a new mother is to offer practical help, she said.

“And stop telling women that they will know what to do, that somehow it will happen … No, let’s be honest with each other,” she added.

“We don’t have to go into scary stories and telling you all the worst parts of motherhood, but can we be a little bit more real with each other and say: ‘That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.’”

Wetherell, who is the co-founder of the free support group for mothers Mindful Mums, pointed out that popular depictions of maternal instinct, especially on social media, are often misleading.

“I feel like what’s out there about maternal instinct is that women are like these demigoddesses – that once they birthed the baby, they kind of fall in love. And they can be like ‘Oh, my baby’s tired, ‘Oh, my baby’s hungry’ or ‘I need to change a nappy’, as if innately, they know these things just through the act of giving birth, like a magical download that’s happened,” she said.

Wetherell explained that while there is “hormonal priming” that happens during pregnancy, which could make you more attuned and responsive to your baby, a lot of knowing what to do happens from socialisation and exposure. 

“Most of us have not had a lot of exposure to infants and caring for them. And so many women become mothers and that is the first time that they are changing a baby’s nappy and holding a baby and feeding a baby. They’ve never done this before, so huge, steep learning curve,” she pointed out.

“I think we have to be a lot more gentle and compassionate with these new mothers and not put that pressure that they should know what’s going on with the baby,” Wetherell said. “It’s a learning process. And that takes time to build.”

She added: “I want us to talk about learning, rather than how you either have it or you don’t, or ‘You’re not a motherly person’. How about treating this as a bit of a scientific experiment? Open mind, trial and error; let me learn about my baby.”

Even the concept of love at first sight for a baby might be a myth, she pointed out, recalling her own experience after giving birth. “This instinct that people talk about out there – that as soon as you meet your baby, you’ll have this instant connection. It’s going to be this love that you’ve never felt before and the angels will be singing … 

“I looked at my daughter, she was 42 weeks … She had big eyes and she stared at me. They put her on my chest. She stared at me with fixed eyes, and I was terrified.

“(Because) it was like she was saying ‘Don’t mess this up’. There was no automatic download and crazy love. I was just scared. And it took some time to get to know her and to fall in love and to feel comfortable.”

Said Wetherell: “Falling in love is not just love at first sight. You need to hang out with your baby to fall in love. So, I wish we stopped doing that to mothers and putting it in movies.”

Instead of talking about instincts, women should talk more honestly about motherhood and its challenges. It could help ease feelings of inadequacy and reduce risk of depression, she said.

“We are not telling pregnant women the realities and the steep learning curves and the adjustment and the impact it will have on their relationships, their sense about themselves, their roles, the strain, the sleep deprivation, giving birth, and what it does to you. 

“We need to be talking to women about this, or about breastfeeding that many women hear during pregnancy is the most natural, instinctive thing, and everyone can do it. It is simply not true. It’s probably one of the hardest things you will ever do again, and it doesn’t come easily for everyone. 

“Sometimes you need a lot of support, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. And it does not make you a failure or a bad mother. There are many ways to love your baby.”

Another thing we should be talking about more is the role that fathers can play, Wetherell pointed out. 

“I would like us to move away from maternal instinct and talk about parental instinct,” she said.

“We put such burden on women. Why is it just maternal instinct? Because sometimes it feels like some kind of legitimised excuse for fathers to step back. 

“You know (the claims) ‘When babies are so little, they just want their mummies and only the mummies can soothe them.’ That is not true,” says Wetherell.

Listen to the episode of the Womankind podcast here.

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CNA Women is a section on CNA Lifestyle that seeks to inform, empower and inspire the modern woman. If you have women-related news, issues and ideas to share with us, email CNAWomen [at]

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