Is parenting learnt or instinctive?

Parenting: Parenting (or child rearing) is the process of promoting and supporting the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood. Parenting refers to the aspects of raising a child aside from the biological relationship.

I’ve written a few posts about trusting your instincts when parenting, however I’ve become aware that these posts are mainly about how important I think instincts are and how much I dislike parenting manuals. I thought maybe a post was in order where I write about what trusting your instincts means to me. Where I define it and put it into context. Where I show you how it’s helped me and how I learnt to trust mine.

Today I googled ‘instinctive mum,’ not because I wanted to revel in my own presence on the internet, but to see if there was anything like my blog out there. To see and read blogs by like minded people. Instead however, I found a blog that was completely the opposite. Where the whole premise behind it was about how we learn as parents, and that instincts very definitely do not exist; and those who say they do are doing others a disservice.

Understandably I was saddened by this, and frustrated. Now I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and boy do people have their own opinions when it comes to parenting, but I felt this was a very strong statement to make. I tweeted what I had read and many of you replied, outraged that someone should say such a thing. Dig a little deeper and you’d discover that the author of the post gave birth to a daughter who was in constant pain, and who, no matter how hard the author tried, was never comforted. Is it any wonder therefore, that the writer of the post doubted her maternal instinct? That she felt like her’s had left her and that she’d failed immediately as a mother?

I then asked the question to my followers on Twitter as to whether they believed parenting to be ‘learnt’ or ‘instinctive.’ The responses were thick and fast with many of you saying it’s a mixture of both. To which I agree. But what surprised me in the replies, and prompted this post, were the beliefs about what ‘instinctive parenting’ actually means. Does it mean knowing what each different cry from your baby means? Does it mean you always know exactly the right thing to do in every situation? Does it mean you are smug and have got this parenting malarkey sorted? Ha! No! Far from it!

For me trusting my instincts is not about having parenting sussed. It does not mean I know everything, that I am the perfect mum and always make the right decisions. I’m not and I don’t. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve doubted myself. I’ve always been useless when it comes to telling my babies’ different cries from each other and often discover the root of the problem through trial and error; if the nappy isn’t full then it’s milk time! Just because I trust my instincts does not mean I find parenting easy. Parenting is not easy, in any way shape or form. Instinctive parenting is in no way meant to be intimidating, or like a gift some of us have and others don’t. And I’d be horrified if it was added to the already over analysed list of the way we parent, as if it’s a fad or some new technique to try.

Instincts are not a wonder drug, they cannot prevent cot death or cure a sick child. They do not offer all of the answers, but they can tell us when we need to ask for help and seek advice. They are there in the middle of the night when your baby has a temperature and you need to help them. (and yes not knowing what to do and ringing the doctor is also trusting your instincts in knowing when you need a professional!) They are there when your baby cries inconsolably and you can’t comfort them and you need to ask for support and advice. They are there when your baby is adjusting their nap times, or isn’t ready to sleep alone or is showing signs of being ready to start potty training.

I agree with many of you who believe that parenting is a combination of many things and that it is an inherent blend of instincts and learning. Many parents believe instincts can tell them when something is or isn’t right for their child, and then they look for the answers, try something new and learn little more. Others say instinct relies heavily on a bond between you and your baby, yet for me I found the opposite to be true; when I was ill with PND I had difficulty bonding with my youngest and relied on my instincts more than ever to listen to his needs, as loving him didn’t seem to be enough.

Many people feel the need to seek acknowledgement or approval before they learn to listen to and trusting their instincts. Others think instincts are primeval and enable you to fundamentally look after your children whilst being influenced by other factors; and some believe that parenting is learnt from our parents and instinctively reproduced. And me, well you all know that I believe in listening to what my instincts are telling me before anything else and going with what I feel is right. I observe, ask myself many different questions, and listen to the answers my instincts are offering. And when no answers are offered I know I need to look elsewhere.

Parenting is about team work between you and your child; it’s about learning together. Undoubtedly the more time you spend together, the more you will learn about your baby and all of their beautifully individual characteristics; but I’d say instincts will definitely have played a part in building this powerful knowledge. They certainly don’t exclude learning, and can work in harmony with it. Instincts are invaluable in helping you have the confidence to trust what you’ve learnt combined with what you know deep down. You can ask for and listen to advice from others (and they’ll often give it whether you’ve asked for it or not) but only you can instinctively know which advice to follow. Only your instincts, if you listen, will let you know which advice is best for your children and your family. It takes time, it takes practice…and it’s priceless.

Do you think parenting is instinctive, learnt or a combination of both?

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16 Comments on Is parenting learnt or instinctive?

  1. Iona@Redpeffer
    October 9, 2013 at 1:31 pm (10 years ago)

    I think it’s a combination. I do rely heavily on my instincts but also use my head too-if I think I need to explore other options I will. With my son for example I often feel that he needs very different parenting to that of his sister. I have to change tactics with him and not rely on instincts so much as I don’t feel as confident in them with him for some reasons, where as I use them a lot with my daughter. It’s strange how you learn to adjust to parenting each child differently, even though stupidly I never anticipated having to do that!

  2. emma t
    October 9, 2013 at 1:47 pm (10 years ago)

    I didn’t think I was going to be particularly maternal and even now wouldn’t say I am, however after our son was born, he was pretty easy to look after and recognise what was wrong (after the first night of screaming and someone advising another blanket as that had worked for them – it did for us too!), so I’d say whatever instinct or bond I had just kicked in. I also think though, it really helped that pretty much all of my friends had already had their children and were happy to share their experiences, and that I was slightly older and so pretty confident that if I chilled out about it, all would be fine. And it has been.

    I was obviously luck in (apart from some minor reflux), he was pretty easy going. For each parent, there’ll be a different level of instinct for each child and you’ll move along the scale depending on the need. But ultimately if you spend time with your child and recognise their personality and needs, then something will kick in if you’re confident that the mother generally knows what’s right.

  3. Dawn Frazier
    October 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm (10 years ago)

    I would agree that it’s a combination of both, or perhaps we learn to trust our instincts. I always used to read books when my son was tiny and wondered why he wouldn’t do ‘as the book says’. Then I had to learn to be more instinctive and start doing things that worked for us as a family, rather than follow what others do. The whole parenting thing is a steep learning curve, which I don’t think anybody ever gets the right or wrong answers to. Other people can only tell you from their own experiences. Then, just when you think you’ve got it sussed, your children change and develop and you have to learn a whole new load of things.

  4. Gemma
    October 10, 2013 at 4:33 pm (10 years ago)

    I think it is a bit of both.
    Obviously becoming a parent you learn lots of new things, but some things do just come naturally when your baby is born.

  5. Sarah MumofThree World
    October 10, 2013 at 9:33 pm (10 years ago)

    Fantastic post! I think it’s a bit of both but, actually, reading your post, I see that a lot of mine was instinctive! I never resorted to the internet and I had one pregnancy book! The rest was how I thought things should be and what my babies told me they wanted. They were never keen on sleeping in the day and I never put them to bed in the day. They potty trained when they were ready – with one being 3 and 2 months and another being a whole year younger! I learned from my experiences with the older ones which influenced how I parented the younger ones.

  6. Rachael (Mushroomsmum)
    October 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm (10 years ago)

    a very thought provoking post! Both, I’m sure of it. I read loads of parenting manuals and all it did was stress me out. It was good to know what to expect but at first I’d panic if things didn’t happen on time or if I read somewhere that I was doing something ‘wrong’ (hello, sleep training hell!’ The HV didn’t help with that one either). If I have another child, I’ll be using my instincts a lot more as everything seems to work out better that way. That said, many of my ‘instincts’ may well be learned behaviour that I modelled from my own mum (who died well before Mushroom was born), so that’s what I now mean by ‘learned.’

  7. WallyMummy
    October 11, 2013 at 8:18 am (10 years ago)

    I think parenting is a mix of many things, but instincts are probably the most important! Knowing and understanding your child’s needs and wants is the foundation of your parenting journey I think xx

  8. Alice @ Mums Make Lists
    October 11, 2013 at 9:35 am (10 years ago)

    Great post very though provoking – I think you’re right it’s a balance but so much of the time you have to feel your way because everything is changing so fast and it’s only you who sees all the tiny little things that make up your child’s life. #pocolo

  9. Jaime Oliver
    October 11, 2013 at 10:22 am (10 years ago)

    Beautiful post honey, I think the same as you re instincts I think instincts are a wonderful thing and we ought to treasure them 🙂

  10. Victoria Welton (@VicWelton)
    October 11, 2013 at 1:45 pm (10 years ago)

    I really do think instincts are a combination of both. Instincts are, to me, more of ‘an idea that or of’ rather than a definite absolute knowing – especially when it comes to being a Mother. Many times I have had an idea that something isn’t right and sometimes it takes me – or someone else – a while to figure out what is actually wrong. A great post. Thank you for linking to PoCoLo x

  11. mummytries
    October 11, 2013 at 5:33 pm (10 years ago)

    Very well written post. I completely agree with what you’ve said and am very much an instinctive person – not just when it comes to parenting but in all aspects of life. I have had a very colourful past though, and my personal experiences mean that I often see things that pass others by entirely.

    However, not everyone is capable of tuning into their instincts because they don’t trust them enough. They need the comfort of advice from books or friends and family. They need to google everything and question their own judgements. If we listened to our gut instincts a little more, and cared a little less about what others thought of us perhaps the world world be a better place.


  12. Orli D
    October 11, 2013 at 5:56 pm (10 years ago)

    I think it’s a combination. Your instincts are very important, but the truth is you can’t rely solely on them. You have to learn, and listen to others and evolve as your child grows. You should trust yourself because you are the only one who knows your child, but sometimes people use that as an excuse for things they don’t want to do, so you have to also rely on learning…
    I guess I wasn’t much help 🙂

  13. Caroline
    October 11, 2013 at 6:59 pm (10 years ago)

    I think that I had to read a lot of books and advice to trust my own instincts if that makes sense. By reading and talking to others I became more confident in trusting my gut and now I feel comfortable making my own way through the parenting jungle! I still read a lot of books and online because I find the subject of parenting and children fascinating – like you I think!

  14. Kriss MacDonald
    October 11, 2013 at 10:09 pm (10 years ago)

    Sometimes when I’m not sure what the best thing to do with my children I turn to my mother for advice. She understand me and my children better than any manual. I don’t, of course, always agree with her, but it helps guide my own ‘instinct’ on the best way to proceed. Basically i need guidance sometimes to make sure my ‘instinct’ is the best solution or not.

  15. Maria
    October 12, 2013 at 10:12 am (10 years ago)

    I don’t think that as soon as your first child is born you instinctively know what to do to care for them. Realistically how many people knew (without having prior experience of looking after a young baby) how to change their nappies, give them a bath, feed them, put them to sleep etc? A lot of it is trial and error, prior knowledge/experience from either real life or watching someone else or actually being instructed (the midwife taught me how to get my baby to latch correctly and it took me a week or two to master it). That said I do think a point comes when you learn to trust your abilities as a mother and stop second guessing whether your doing things right. For me at 3 months I had that light bulb moment that no one knows my child better then me as I am the one with him the most, therefore I must be the expert on my child. Like you stated in your article that doesn’t mean you don’t seek help when needed but its just having that trust that you will be able to do the best for your child and get it right without having a second opinion. After your first child I think its pretty much confidence and experience rather then purely instinct.


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