It turns out that ‘nesting’ in pregnancy is NOT biologically programmed

Posted in Stages of Pregnancy.

The idea that pregnancy causes some kind of chemical change in a woman’s body that compels her to ready her home for the incoming baby has been widely touted.

“Oh she’s nesting!! Won’t be long now!”

If you’ve ever been pregnant and say … bought a cushion or ordered some groceries, you’ve probably been faced with knowing winks, belly rubs and chatter about how you’re adorably making a home for your bub.

There’ll possibly be discussion on how you can’t help it and you’ll be likened to a mother duck feathering her nest in readiness for your impending baby duckling. Before you know it, every domestic duty is taken as proof that you’re going to deliver any second now.

You’ll read about this urge all over social media, the internet in general and in parenting books as well. But what you might not realise is that there’s really no evidence to support the theory that nesting is the biological phenomenon it’s often touted as.

Woman cleaning a work surface

A new review (which we were alerted to by The Conversation) of the science behind pregnancy ‘nesting’ and its supposed biological roots has just been published. It sheds more light on possible causes of nesting behaviour and its causes. Spoiler alert: It appears to have nothing to do with biology, hormones or ‘pregnancy chemicals’ of any kind.

“I analyse the discussion of nesting behaviours on popular pregnancy websites,” the review author Arianne Shahvisi explains.

“I then investigate the evidence base for nesting in humans through conducting a systematic review of the academic literature, and conclude that it is inadequate to ground the claims made in the popular discourse.”

Arianne notes that ‘pregnancy nesting’ is understudied (as are many issues relating to women) and that she’s not saying it’s not a thing. What she is saying is that pregnancy nesting seems to be influenced by social norms and a woman’s circumstances. It’s not biologically programmed into pregnant women.

“I am not questioning the experience of nesting behaviours, I am questioning their cause,” Arianne writes.

“And even if nesting behaviours are ultimately attributed to a social explanation, that need not detract from the experience being felt as a compulsion. Social forces are just as capable of compelling us to behave in certain ways as are biological forces.”

Commonsense chores

There are practical reasons why women may appear to be ‘nesting’ when a baby is on the way, Arianne points out. For instance:

  • She may (quite rightly) be anticipating having less time after her baby is born, so is attending to domestic tasks ahead of the birth.
  • She may be on maternity leave and finally have time to catch up on tasks she couldn’t carry out because she was working.
  • She may be feeling more confident about her pregnancy in her final trimester, when the risk of miscarriage has passed, and thus is getting on with things she’d postponed in earlier trimesters.

Basically there are lots of commonsense reasons women dive into domestic chores close to a baby’s birth, and none of them signal she’s had some sort of ‘mummy lobotomy’ or is crowning an infant.

Insidious or cute?

These ‘programmed to nest’ tales may seem cute, but they could also encourage women to take on (even more) domestic work. 

As Leah Ruppanner writes for The Conversation: “This is the latest study to shatter our long-held expectation that women are biologically predisposed to do more care work.”

In other words, everyone in the family should be mucking in to get ready for new babies. Please do not leave it all to the allegedly ‘nesting’ pregnant mum.


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