Maternal Instincts: Why do some women appear to have it while others do not?

Maternal Instincts


One common question that is commonly asked to mature ladies is, “So when do you have children?’. While some have an innate characteristic of maternal love and care, some do not express any signs of being a mother. At a tender age, little girls cart around dolls, rocking, feeding, cleaning and changing them. Such is an early sign of a future caregiver. For other mothers, even after bearing children they do not express any signs of tender care or love. Various ancient and modern theories have been presented to explain why this happens, ranging from biological to psychological reasons.


Maternal Instinct: Why do some women appear to have it while others do not?

Maternal instincts are a biological readiness or ability to mother. Since the times of Charles Darwin, speculations about maternal instincts have featured predominantly in ancient theories. Theories presented in the twentieth century by William James, Stanley Hall, and William McDougall suggests that women have a unique ability to care for children. The maternal instinct was linked to the tendency of women to be emotional and tender when caring for the young ones (Shields, 1984). Most women tend to be emotional, and especially to the young ones. They are more responsible and tender when they are caring for their children. Also, when a mother and her child spend more time together, the bonding grows stronger and stronger each day.

The biological assumptions form the basis of the psychological speculations on the importance of bonding between the mother and child as well as in the evolutionary theories presented by socio-biologists. The socio-biologists explain that the human maternal instinct is a predictable response to the acts of conception. According to Ragsdale (2013), females can pass their genes on a limited number of offspring while males can pass their genes to multiple women. Therefore, the women are assumed to be more sensitive than men when it comes to protecting their genetic investments.

Harry Harlow conducted a study on rhesus monkey that was raised solely in wire wages. The effects of the isolation and the reintroduction to other monkeys at different ages were observed. For primates and other animals with higher intelligence, mother’s maternal behavior, and her emotional experiences are close related (Harlow et al., 2016). According to Cutts (1979), motherless monkey mothers disregarded their offspring and even attacked them when they tried to make contact with them. The study revealed that motherless monkeys did not possess the traits of a caregiver. They were more hostile and repulsed any attempts by the offspring to engage her. It was difficult to produce something that may never have been experienced before. As such, mothers who experienced motherly care before are more likely to be good mothers as compared to those who were abandoned at a tender age.

The recent studies on instinctive behavior emphasize biological predispositions to engage in specific behaviors rather than fixed behavioral patterns. Ethnological work has shown the existence of biological predispositions in non-human species. The predisposition is elaborated in lower animals such as rats. When a female rat gives birth, the female nurses its young ones, builds a nest and retrieves pups. On the other hand, the male rat has nothing to do with the young ones and may attack them, if provoked (Shields, 1984). After a few days with the young ones, the male will show a few signs of bonding but not as much as the mother. It may lick and retrieve the young ones if they wander off the nest but he cannot feed them or build a nest for them. In the case of virgin female rats, they take longer to show maternal instincts that the new mothers. However, the introduction of parent hormones may influence their maternal behavior. When injected with blood plasma from new mothers, virgin female rats begin to show their maternal behavior sooner than it would otherwise be.

The theories on maternal instincts are often challenged for lack of consistencies. The theories equate maternal instincts with predisposition which makes it impossible to evaluate scientifically. If the expected behavior occurs, then it can be argued that the conditions that existed at that time were right for its emergence. However, if the behavior does not occur, then it can be explained that the prevailing conditions were wrong. Further, the arguments for a maternal instinct do not have a valid explanation to some situations when mothers become cruel, neglectful and even murderous rather than being caring to the young ones (Ragsdale, 2013). An example is in some cultures that allow the killing of infants when the newborns are viewed as a punishment or a negative message from their gods. The mothers are the ones who are supposed to kill the infant (Kristal, 2009). Also, middle-class European women who sent their children to live with wet nurses under deplorable conditions that threatened the lives of the young ones. The cruelty of maternal mothers was also evident in Victorian Era when mothers killed children born out of wedlock or against their traditions for fear of being reprimanded by the authorities.

The reliance on parental behavior has discouraged researchers in gathering information on the behavior of fathers and males to children. However, little evidence exists to fill the gaps that exist. In the United States, fathers and males respond to newborns more enthusiastically like the mothers. They can rock them, play with them and talk with them as they cuddle the newborns in their arms. The American fathers have taken after the mothers when it comes to handling the newborns. Males are more likely to show “motherly care” to their young ones than to unfamiliar newborns while the mothers can replicate their characteristics even to the unfamiliar babies. Existing evidence show that males suppress their parental behavior in public due to the social norms that prevail in the society (Bale, 2005). Unlike men, women often express their emotional weaknesses even in the public (Ragsdale, 2013). The society accepts men to be more courageous and confident rather than express their emotions in the public arena.

Professor Sarah Hrdy from the University of California believes that mothering is a learnt behavior and is not based on instincts (2000). Hrdy studied primates for more than three decades to determine their parental behavior and how it changed at different age levels. From the study, she argues that females tend to develop the motherly behavior depending on their desire to nurture young ones. Also, the amount of time spent bonding together adversely affected their behavior. Although she does not rule out the existence of maternal instincts, she believes that they are biologically-generated and not true instincts. She says, “a woman who is committed to being a mother will learn to care and love any baby, without considering whether the baby is hers or not. A woman not committed to being a mother may not be prepared to live any baby, not even her child” (Hydy, 2000). Hrdy argues that infants are inherently engineered to influence their parents that they are of value and need their care and love (2000). She cites the plumpness of human babies and their irresistible smiles as evidence to her claims. She says that even fathers can demonstrate maternal behavior given the right conditions.

Unlike maternity, paternity may be put in doubt in specific circumstances. Hrdy argues that natural selection is the main reason maternal behavior may not be evidently displayed among males. Females are naturally inclined to care for children, unlike males. Most fathers spend very little time tending to their children and may, therefore, take the time to bond with the baby, unlike the mother who spends most of her time with the child. Being attached to a loving caregiver allows babies to survive, without the caregiver being the biological mother. The relationship between a baby and the mother grows stronger due to birth and lactation, and this motivates the mother to express love and care to her baby.

Scientists are also monitoring brain waves of new parents to explain the maternal instincts among fathers and mothers. The scientists have discovered that mothers had an extensive response to their toddler cries than to unconnected baby’s cries. The mothers also showed greater response to the cries than the baby’s father. The father’s brains displayed increased activity in parts thought to be more complicated in thoughtful and motor planning. The mothers showed a corresponding increase in the same areas and also in the limbic and basal forebrain regions (Kinsley & Lambert, 2006). The limbic and basal forehead areas are responsible for emotional responses, and this shows that the mothers had a higher emotional response that their male counterparts.

Hrdy maintains her position that maternal behavior is biologically based. She adds that the bonding between the mother and the baby occurs when they exchange hormones and chemicals during pregnancy. Even after birth, the bond grows stronger when the baby and the mother spend more time together (Hydy, 2000). Therefore, maternal instincts develop with time, and it is not a characteristic that ladies are born with. Rather, it is influenced by birth; lactation and the quality time spent with the mother and the baby. Fathers and non-biological mothers develop maternal behavior from the time spent bonding with the child.

The popular beliefs about maternal instincts have had a variety of social consequences on women who prefer to remain childless as well as to mothers who may develop a feeling of inadequacy for how they relate to their children. From the analysis of theories on maternal instincts and findings of different scholars, maternal instincts may not develop until you bond with your baby. By talking to the babies, feeding them, smiling at them and rocking them, the bond grows even stronger with time. The bonding is not only for biological mothers but also for caregivers, adoptive mothers, and fathers. The maternal instincts do not control or define who the responsible mothers are.




Bale, T. (2005). Is mom too sensitive: Impact of maternal stress during gestation. Physiological behavior, 42-49.

Cutts, D. (1979). Is there such a thing as “maternal instinct”? Special Feature, 8(11), 39-41.

Harlow, H., Dodsworth, R., & Harlow, M. (2016, 04 06). Total isolation in monkeys. Retrieved from PNAS:

Hydy, S. (2000). Mother Nature: Maternal instincts and how they shape the human species. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kinsley, C., & Lambert, K. (2006). The maternal brain. New York: Scientific American Inc.

Kristal, M. (2009). The biopsychology of maternal behavior in nonhuman mammals. ILAR Journal, 38-58.

Ragsdale, G. (2013). The maternal myth. Retrieved from Psychology Today:

Shields, S. (1984). To pet, coddle and ‘do for’: caretaking and the concept of maternal instinct. (M. Lewin, Ed.) New York.

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