SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

August 2014

Mothering – Instinct Or Learnt Skill?

Birth, breastfeeding, and nurturing young ones – are these instinctive behaviours or learnt skills? Before you become a mother, you may wonder whether you have ‘maternal instincts’. Here are some factors to think about, as you prepare for this new stage of life.

“It is in our nature if we allow the body to flow during labour and birth. We have hormones that help us care for our babies well in the early days. These hormones set us up for the long haul. With good bonding early on, hugs, kisses and nurturing behaviour will come naturally. However, being a mother is also learnt. Bed-time reading aloud, for example, is learnt; some people don’t know how important it is. Technology allows parents to research, and make informed decisions about issues such as discipline. Becoming informed ensures that we don’t have to parent the way we were parented, if we choose not to,” said Carol Loi, mother of two girls, aged nine and 12.


“When we first got married, my wife would say that she had no maternal instincts. I too, never thought of myself as ‘dad’. But when our son was born, my wife became a beautiful mother – another side of her emerged,” said Frederic Len, father to a two-year-old boy.

What do you think?

Hardwired to Nurture!

Your Monkey

As midwife, writer, and mothers and baby advocate Ina May Gaskin says, “Let your monkey do it.” She suggests letting the primate in you labour and mother your baby, without interference from your over-busy mind. This means letting your natural instincts guide your parenting, not over-thinking.

Your Hormones

Oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, is one of nature’s best parenting tools. This hormone is present in high levels when we make love, give birth, breastfeed, or interact with our babies. Oxytocin makes you more caring and helps you to recognise your child’s non-verbal cues. Other chemicals produced in your body, such as prolactin, opioids and norepinephrine also support you as you mother. The levels of these hormones surge everytime you breastfeed. Breastfeeding immediately after birth creates a hormone cocktail in your body that primes you for mothering. As you continue to breastfeed for the first six weeks, six months, and beyond, this mothering ‘cocktail’ helps in your journey as a mother too.

Your Biology

New Zealander midwife, writer and researcher Suzanne Colson has spent several years working with mother-baby pairs and researching breastfeeding neuro-behaviours. Findings from her 2008 study on triggering primitive newborn reflexes suggest that breastfeeding is innate, not learnt. In an article, she explains that babies have 20 primitive inborn reflexes which work with their mothers’ instinctive behaviours and hormonal states during breastfeeding. She describes this biological interaction between mother and baby as part of our genetic inheritance.

Even so, many of us are not in touch with our instinctive nature. Instead, we short-circuit our inner hardwiring and rely on books and ‘experts’ for parenting advice. How did this happen?

Factors that Conflict with Your Maternal Instincts

The Parenting You Received

Our parents did the best they could with what they had. Scarce parenting information or challenging family circumstances may have meant that we were – unknowingly – raised with outdated, ineffective, or even harmful parenting methods.

For many of us, the parenting we received is the only model of parenting we know. As children, we learnt to deal with emotions such as fear or anger by watching how our parents dealt with theirs. When we become parents, we see or hear ourselves doing the very things our parents did that hurt us. The ‘dragons’ from our childhood have come into our own homes. We have become our parents!

Your Birth Experience

Labour and birth are physiological processes that can unfold with little outside interference for healthy mothers and babies. Yet they are often treated as medical events involving procedures or drugs. Your birth experience and its resulting feelings affect your relationship with your baby, says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, health psychologist, lactation consultant, writer and editor of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. If you felt overwhelmed, in danger, or had decisions about your care made for you during birth (instead of being able to choose the kind of care that you wanted), you may have felt fearful, angry or disempowered.


Modern-day Living

Life moves very quickly for today’s Singaporean mother. You may be stretching at both ends to meet work, family, and household responsibilities. You may worry about finances. You may have unrealistic expectations of yourself or doubt your ability to juggle commitments. These stresses interfere with the amount of patience, gentleness, and nurturing that you are able to give your children.

A High-Tech World

We rely on science and technology in our day-to-day lives, making decisions based on evidence and hard facts. Our culture values rationality, logic, and efficiency over feeling. As children, we are told to “stop crying” or have our fears put down. Many of us have learnt to discount our feelings, intuition and inner wisdom, ignoring those sensations in our hearts or bodies telling us that things are not right.

Our Culture’s Beliefs & Expectations

Every culture has its beliefs, expectations, and biases about how children should be raised. Parenting practices may follow tradition rather than a real emotional connection between parent and child. For example, many families value independence and self-soothing in babies and young children, so babies may be expected to sleep apart from their mothers and for prolonged stretches at night. Corporal punishment is accepted in some cultures but frowned upon in others. The norm in your culture may well be different from your gut feelings. It takes courage to parent differently and you may doubt your choices.

Scientific Parenting Vs Intuitive Parenting

We have access to bewilderingly large amounts of how-to-parent information based on child development science and psychology. This information offers guidance, especially when you are facing problems or have no idea how to work with your child. However, when a lot of the information is conflicting and parenting experts do not agree, what’s a mother to do?

Getting Back on Track!

Reconnecting with your instincts and biological parenting tools is not difficult. Try these:

• Take responsibility for your birth. Understand labour and birth options, discuss with your obgyn to find one that is best for you.

• Minimise interventions and medication during birth.

• Breastfeed, have skin-to-skin contact, and room-in with your baby immediately after birth. This ensures that your mothering hormones remain at elevated levels.

• Care for your physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs.

• Eat healthily and get sufficient rest. Replenish your mind and spirit, whether by hanging out with like-minded mother-friends, reading, or exercising.

• Parent with sensitivity and empathy, using parenting practices – such as baby-wearing – that help you connect with your baby.

• Parent consciously, reflecting on your choices and behaviors.

• Parent intuitively! This involves relating to your child’s innermost feelings and thoughts. Look beyond behaviour to understand your child’s motivations. Check that parenting information sits comfortably with your instincts and is aligned with your personal parenting philosophy.

Happy mothering!

All content from this article, including images, cannot be reproduced without credits or written permission from SingaporeMotherhood.

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram for the latest article and promotion updates.

Mothering – Instinct Or Learnt Skill?