In the month leading up to my oldest son’s birth, I packed and re-packed my hospital bag approximately 20 times, made endless lists of loose ends to tie up at work, and organized a closet full of tiny onesies by size and color. I was totally nesting. The science behind nesting during pregnancy explains why many soon-to-be-parents (myself included) just can’t help but prepare their homes, minds, and bodies for their new baby’s arrival. It’s basically a biological urge to get all of your ducks in a row, so to speak, before baby is born.
What is nesting and why does it happen when you’re pregnant?
“Parents nest so that they can provide the best physical, social, and emotional space for their children to survive and thrive. This is based in evolutionary theory,” neuropsychologist Dr. Judy Ho tells Romper. “We as a species will do whatever we can to make sure that our progeny survives beyond ourselves.”
Think of a mama bird gathering twigs and leaves to build a nest where she will lay her eggs. She picks the perfect spot, high in a tree, away from predators, and does everything she can to create a safe and secure area to nurture her soon-to-be-born babies. The preparation that goes into getting your (human) space ready for a new baby is rooted in similar natural instincts.
Various studies have been done to illustrate this evolutionary link, including one published in Evolution and Human Behavior, which sums up nesting this way: “Anthropological data suggest that having control over the environment is a key feature of childbirth preparation in humans, including decisions about where birth will take place, and who will be welcome in the birthing environment.”
Basically, you can blame your pregnancy nesting instincts on biology. “The hormones released in the brain as labor approaches can trigger a home-building urge that we call nesting. These hormones drive attachment and increase over the course of pregnancy as birth draws nearer,” birth educator and doula Sara Lyon tells Romper.
Like so many changes in the body that happen during pregnancy, the urge to nest is controlled by your changing hormones and happens in the brain. “The amygdala is a part of the brain that reacts to the nesting hormone oxytocin, and also governs our emotions. Nesting provides a channel for the amygdala’s drive toward security, safety and control,” Lyon says. “When the amygdala says ‘Nest!’ it’s best that we do.”
What does nesting during pregnancy look like?
Nesting can look like any number of things expectant parents do to get ready for their baby’s arrival. Everything from deep cleaning every corner of your house to organizing baby essentials to stocking your freezer with ready-to-heat meals are considered part of the nesting process. Nesting can also be a time where you connect with family and friends to help get in the right headspace for giving birth. It really looks different for everyone.
“The nesting instinct tends to be at its strongest during the third trimester, leading up to the due date in the last weeks,” licensed professional mental health counselor Dr. Joanne Frederick tells Romper. Though nesting typically happens in the latter part of pregnancy, Frederick notes, “It is an old wives’ tale that labor is about to come on once nesting urges begin.” So, don’t think you need to rush to the hospital just because you alphabetized your spice rack.
As helpful as the tasks you complete can be for your post-birth self, nesting isn’t without a few drawbacks. Frederick describes that some expectant parents feel a “certain sense of pressure or sudden need to prepare for when the baby arrives once you get closer to the due date and have loved ones asking if you have everything ready.”
The urge to get everything in your life just so before you give birth can be stressful when you’re up against the ticking clock of your due date. Lyon tells Romper that pregnancy insomnia can also surface during the nesting period “with thoughts about retirement accounts and financing the baby’s eventual education creeping in during the most inconvenient hours.”
Can non-birthing partners experience the urge to nest?
As it turns out, the urge to nest during the last stage of pregnancy isn’t just limited to those giving birth. Their partner may also experience the phenomenon. Lyon explains that the same rise in oxytocin (the primary hormone related to the start of labor) that happens in birthing parents “can also elevate in the non-birth partner as the psychological reality of parenthood solidifies.” Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” so it makes sense that this drive to prepare your heart and life for a new baby would extend to non-birthing partners as well.
“Most surprising, but also typical, is the non-birth partner’s urge to renovate a bathroom, go back to school for a higher degree, or buy a puppy a month before their estimated due date — it’s quite funny actually,” says Lyon. “These are all nesting habits of the partner who wants to build a secure foundation for their growing family.”
Are there benefits to nesting during pregnancy?
As Lyon explained above, one of the things that nesting does is give your brain an outlet to exercise control during a time when so many things feel like they’re out of your control. This also speaks to the way that nesting can help alleviate feelings of uneasiness or anxiety about the impending change you’re about to experience when you bring your baby home.
“As the old expression reads, ‘Home is where the heart is.’ Nesting can help create a living space that provides warmth and stability in times that may bring on stress and anxiety,” Frederick tells Romper. “The need for comfort is intensified when the outside world is full of change and uncertainty. It’s only natural that when there is a significant change on the horizon, we intuitively want our personal space to resonate with us while providing a sense of calm, comfort, and belonging. You can ease your newborn parenting anxieties by preparing for what’s to come once the baby arrives by nesting.”
It can be helpful to think of nesting as a path to your peak physical and mental birthing self. By preparing yourself, your space, and even those around you for your baby’s entrance, you’re actually lightening your mental load while your body gears up for birth.
“The benefits of nesting can help moms and parents in general get more support from their communities and family members, and also helps them to really relish this time before they become parents for the first time, or add more to their family,” says Ho. “It’s an important transition that without that mindful care, can become very overwhelming for people. Nesting can help counteract that and is quite soothing to most people and at the same time helps them to feel accomplished.”
Anderson, M. V., & Rutherford, M. D. (2013). Evidence of a nesting psychology during human pregnancy. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(6), 390–397. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2013.07.002
Dr. Judy Ho, neuropsychologist and Forbes Health advisory board member