The science of parental “instincts”

What does science tell us about parental “instincts” – about maternal, or even paternal, instincts?

This National Geographic article (in 2018) spoke to anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and other scientists about the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin has specific biological functions for women giving birth and feeding babies.

The same hormone triggers parental instincts not just in the mums, but also in the dads as well as in grandparents and other relatives too.

“Humans as a species remain biologically driven to form bonds with infants placed in their care—no matter their gender or social status.”

As well as triggering the emotions that bond families, oxytocin may also strengthen in-group bonding more widely. That may mean greater disinterest in out-groups.

Instinctive behaviour like this happens without willing it consciously. But an individual can also learn and change the behaviour. That means social influences can promote or reduce an instinct.

‘Baby fever’ isn’t for everyone

But this biology doesn’t mean that, in today’s societies, every person should feel the need or desire to have kids. “You get a lot of men and women who just don’t want kids. It’s just not on their radar,” anthropologist Lisa McAllister says.

“You get a ton of men and women who never get ‘baby fever’ or this maternal instinct when they happen to be around a child. It’s just that the internal psychology for how we measure success has shifted in our society.”

The human race must depend for it’s survival on some kind of parental “instinct” to forge the important lasting bonds between parents and their offspring, as well as with the wider family and community too.