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It's science: Wanting to 'eat' your baby makes you a better parent

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Babies. Adorable, chunky babies. Rolls and rolls, folding over and under one another. Drinking in all that delicious newness just makes us want to hold them and take care of them at this little stage of life, forever.


Honestly, we all know the urge to just squeeze them. So, so scrumptious—it's all we can do not to chomp down on those plump little thighs with all those tempting rolls. Doing our best to resist our desire to bite our baby, we can find ourselves wondering, Is this normal?


Rest assured, mama, your urge to devour your baby—or your toddler, or your husband or your friend's baby, for that matter—is backed by evolution, biology and plenty of research. Not only is it normal, it's healthy.

Babies are designed to help people to fall in love with them. Ginormous eyes and bitty noses above rosebud lips, chubby necks, squishy arms and legs, all add up to pure sweetness—making us want to take care of them and yes, even eat them, too.

These compulsions are part of an evolutionary bonding mechanism and signify positive emotions and healthy attachment, in addition to helping us decrease our stress levels by releasing pent-up energy and emotional overload. Several studies have provided insight into the biological foundations of human caregiving and a neurobiological explanation for why we feel these urges.

In short, we are hardwired to be drawn to, care for and "want to eat" anything that looks like a baby.

Evolution and science conspire to make us chomp

Ethology is the study of human behavior and social organization from a biological perspective. It's also the field of science in which it is proven that babies are cute for a reason—to attract us and make us want to care for them.

Cute physical characteristics are defined by ethologist Konrad Lorenz as "baby schema." Over the eons we have come to subconsciously associate round faces, large eyes, big foreheads and small chins as cute, or "baby." Just look at dolls, cartoon characters (like Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse), advertising, and even car designs—hello, Volkswagen Bug—to see Lorenz's theory IRL.

In a submission to the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), a team of researchers tested the impact of baby schema on the perception of cuteness and the motivation for caretaking in 122 undergraduate students. Using morphing techniques, they manipulated photographs of 17 infant faces to produce images of high baby schema, or "cute" (round face, high forehead, big eyes, small nose and mouth), and low baby schema, or "not cute" (narrow face, low forehead, small eyes, big nose and mouth).

The students viewed both categories, along with the original portraits of each infant, then rated the infants' cuteness and how much they were motivated to take care of them. Portraits with the most baby schema (babies rated "cutest") correlated with the strongest impulse to cuddle and provide protection and care to the infants.

Interestingly, other studies have indicated that women tend to be more interested in infants and caretaking activities than men. Based on this, the scientists further hypothesized that women would have a higher response to baby schema than men. So in their next study, the researchers set out to determine the neural basis of this altruistic maternal instinct.

In this second study, 16 women who had never given birth were chosen to view a random sequence of the same set of infant faces from the first study while their brain activity was measured. During the session, the women rated the pictures for cuteness.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map their brain activity, researchers were able to see that regardless of whether the women were the babies' mothers, higher baby schema activated the mesocorticolimbic system, which is the neural network affiliated with reward. The release of dopamine—the feel good hormone—from the mesolimbic pathway into the nucleus accumbens regulates motivation and desire and facilitates reward-related motor function learning.

The scientists surmised that perceiving high baby schema infants as "cute" presents a positive incentive, via the surge in dopamine, that provides the motivational drive for caretaking behavior. This engagement of the mesocorticolimbic system proves a biological foundation for human caregiving by providing a neurobiological explanation as to why we feel the urge to care for anything that resembles a baby.

From an evolutionary standpoint, being hard-wired to respond to baby schema in babies other than our own is adaptive, "as human ancestors likely evolved as cooperative breeders with a social system characterized by the spread of the caretaker role to group members other than the mother."

Like modern-day alloparenting, the additional bonding to and protection by people other than kin that baby schema elicits in humans is integral in the promotion of the species. Simply put, it really does take a village.

Though cuteness can motivate us to care for anything that looks like a baby, it can also overstimulate us, throwing our brain into overload—and we. want. to. bite.

But how does all of this explain why we want to eat our baby?

In 2015, two studies were conducted by graduate psychology students at the Clark Relationship Lab at Yale University. Researchers Oriana Aragon and Rebecca Dyer determined that too much cute stimuli (in this case, baby schema) triggers an aggressive reaction—or opposite expression.

Cute aggression, or "dimorphous expression," is when an abundance of positive emotions elicits expressions normally associated with negative emotions.

In their first study, participants were shown pictures of babies that were so cute they overwhelmed them with positive feelings and caused them to reveal expressions of high aggression, saying they wanted to pinch the babies' cheeks and "eat them up." As expected, participants had more positive feelings when viewing photographs of cuter babies than when viewing photographs of the less-cute babies.

"When you see something that's unbearably cute, you have this high positive reaction," said lead researcher, Oriana Aragon. "These feelings get overwhelming, and for some reason (with) cuteness, the 'dimorphous expression' happens to be the gritting of teeth, clenching of fists and (the stating of) aggressive statements like 'I wanna eat you.'" Basically, when we feel happiness that is so intense, it manifests as a violent impulse.

So why do we do this?

It's a means of releasing stress.

Too many positive emotions can be as stressful and overwhelming as too many negative emotions—and it is just as bad for our bodies. "Being very high or really low still releases stress hormones, and it'll still be hard on the body," explains Aragon. "To regulate those emotions and regain balance and emotional equilibrium, we need to release stress in an opposite way, ie. aggressively."

Aragon explains, "We regulate emotions in a lot of different ways. Sometimes we try to rethink the situation. Sometimes we try to push our emotions down with sheer will. Sometimes we remove ourselves from the situation that is causing the emotions. And with this new discovery, we are figuring out that sometimes we respond with the opposite expression from what we feel, and that seems to help to balance us back out too."

So in a second study, Aragon and Dyer set out to determine if cute aggression in reactions to infantile stimuli indeed functioned to regulate emotion, and in the process, decrease stress levels.

In this second study, those who had the highest "aggressive" responses to the photos, ie. the most overstimulation, also tended to have a lower level of positive emotion five minutes after viewing the images, leading the researchers to believe that "cute aggression" was helping them regulate and balance out their overall emotions. "(P)eople who (express aggression) seem to recover better from those strong emotions," explained Aragon.

This is a good thing: It is the brain's way of bringing us back into a normal, more manageable range of emotions. Because, if we are out of control, we cannot care for our baby. In terms of evolution, a stressed mama, whether she is upset or overjoyed, might not be the most attentive mama, so nature has built in a way to even the keel and keep us alert, stable and able to act.

The researchers' work is reinforced by other studies that have also concluded that by balancing one emotion with the expression of another, the expression of that emotion functions to regulate the other emotion.

Nature's way of balancing emotions has wide reaching benefits

What scientists are learning from this phenomenon is being explored as a means for possibly alleviating mental illness. "You see (bipolar) people go manic for days—they're really high, they're really up. That has deleterious effects on the body. Potentially, this (research) could lead to better therapies...for people who are having a difficult time managing their emotions," says Aragon.

Recognizing the benefits of the emotional release and balance gained from this phenomenon, Aragon and Dyer believe further studies can help people understand relationships and emotional states better.

So, mama, it is perfectly normal and healthy to want to eat our babies.

Cuteness motivates us to want to care for babies, but we can be overwhelmed by it, making us want to eat them. That aggressive response reduces the stress we get from all that incapacitating joy, and it all works together to balance out our overwhelming emotions so that we can continue to care for them and keep them safe. Got that?

And as far as our friends wanting to eat our baby, primatologist Susan Perry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues say that harmless "social biting" may also be part of our evolutionary heritage as a way of testing our social bonds and displaying signs of our good intentions.

So go ahead and nibble on those dimples—it's making you a more emotionally balanced person, which makes you an even better parent.

[This post was originally published May 07, 2018]

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While breastfeeding might seem like a simple task, there are so many pieces to the puzzle aside from your breasts and baby. From securing a good latch, boosting your milk supply and navigating pumping at work or feeding throughout the night, there's a lot that mama has to go through—and a number of products she needs.

No matter how long your nursing journey may be, it can be hard to figure out what items you really need to add to your cart. So we asked our team at Motherly to share items they simply couldn't live without while breastfeeding. You know, those ones that are a total game-changer.

Here are the best 13 products that they recommend—and you can get them all from Walmart.com:

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Orange Is the New Black star Danielle Brooks is pregnant and frustrated. The actress took to Instagram this week to lament the lack of plus-sized options for pregnant people.

"It's so hard to find some clothes to wear today....Although I get to pregnant I still can't find no clothes. It's so hard to find some clothes when you're pregnant," she sings in a lighthearted yet serious video.

"It's so hard to find cute plus size maternity fashion while pregnant, but ima push through," she captioned the clip.

Brooks has been talking a lot this week about the issues people who wear plus size clothing face not just when trying to find clothes but in simply moving through a world that does not support them.

"I feel like the world has built these invisible bullets to bully us in telling us who we're supposed to be and what we're supposed to look like. And I've always had this desire to prove people wrong—to say that this body that I'm in is enough," she told SHAPE (she's on the new cover).

"Now that I'm about to be a mother, it means even more—to make sure that this human being I'm going to bring into the world knows that they are enough," she said.

Danielle Brooks is the body-positive hero we need right now. Now can someone make her some cute maternity clothes, please?

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Can pregnancy be contagious among friends? Science says yes, and so do some staff at a hospital in Maine where nine nurses from the Labor & Delivery Unit were all expecting at the same time, and now they are all mamas.

About 5 months ago, after one of the nurses posted a photo of 8 of the 9 mamas-to-be the sweet pic quickly went viral.

Soon local news stations picked up the story of the baby boom on the L&D unit at Maine Medical Center.



"It's really nice coming to work and seeing other people who are just as pregnant and watching their bellies pop and just talking about these experiences that we are going through together," one of the nurses, Amanda Spear, told WMTW.

"I feel like every other day we would come into work and it would be like, 'someone else is pregnant,'" Spear told NBC.

Another of the nurses, Erin Grenier, said that with every pregnancy announcement the staff got more and more excited for each other.

Nurse Brittney Verville couldn't believe the photo she posted to Facebook before resting up for the night shift got thousands of likes and shares. "When we woke up we're like, 'oh my gosh I think we're viral,'" she told NBC.

Now, the mamas are going viral again, as a picture of the babies is blowing up, even making it to CNN.

The youngest is 3 weeks old and the oldest is 3½ months. The mamas are already getting them together for playdates. The photographer who snapped the viral pic, Carly Murray, told CNN she hopes one say these kiddos understand how important the work their mamas do is.

Congrats to the nurse of the Maine Medical Center Labor and Delivery Unit! 🎉

[A version of this post was originally published March 26, 2019. It has been updated.]

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In the last couple of years Prince Harry has had more eyes on him than ever before, and the beaming new dad has been showing the world that red hair can look really good.

While Prince Harry has taken some ribbing for his hair over the years, it's pretty clear that the former Meghan Markle loves him dearly (red hair and all) and everyone is wondering if baby Archie will be a ginger, too. It looks like Harry's genes are pretty strong.

Several media outlets are reporting that baby Archie appears to have reddish hair, but only time will truly tell if that peach fuzz turns into real read hair.

Is baby Archie really a redhead? 

Photographs of baby Archie seem to suggest his hair does have a reddish hue, and it is totally possible for a couple to have a redheaded baby even if one of them isn't a ginger.

"Even when we can't always see red hair, many people still carry the genes," says Professor Mark Elgar, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Melbourne.

"Recessive genes can stay hidden for a long time, which is why brown-eyed parents can have blue eyed child, just as brown-haired parents can have a redheaded baby," says Professor Elgar.

According to Elgar, this is why reports of redheads with blue eyes (like Prince Harry) "going extinct" are exaggerated. "It does not look like the traits will disappear due to dilution of either the redhead or the blue-eyed genes from the human population."

The ginger genes 

So, if the Duchess has the gene for red hair, baby Archie may share Prince Harry's hair hue. According to USA Today, John H. McDonald, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Delaware put the chances of a redheaded baby for the couple at about 10%.

In fact, there's a chance that any baby—even those with two non-redhead parents—can be a redhead. Recessive genes can pop up seemingly out of nowhere, surprising parents.

While the internet is getting very excited about the possibility that baby Archie is a ginger, we know no matter what his hair eventually looks like (he dies;t have a lot of it right now) his mama will love him as much as she loves his father.

Here's to the redheads. 🎉

[A version of this post was originally published November 5, 2018. It has been updated.]

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Alexis Ohanian has made a lot of important decisions in his life. The decision to co-found Reddit is a pretty big one. So was marrying Serena Williams. But right up there with changing internet culture and making a commitment to his partner, the venture capitalist lists taking time off after his daughter's birth as a significant, life-changing choice.

"Before Olympia was born, I had never thought much about paternity leave and, to be honest, Reddit's company policy was not my idea. Our vice president of people and culture, Katelin Holloway, brought it up to me in a meeting and it sounded O.K., so why not?" Ohanian writes in an op-ed for New York Times Parenting.

He continues: "Then came Olympia, after near-fatal complications forced my wife, Serena, to undergo an emergency C-section. Serena spent days in recovery fighting for her life against pulmonary embolisms. When we came home with our baby girl, Serena had a hole in her abdomen that needed bandage changes daily. She was on medication. She couldn't walk."

The experience changed the way Ohanian viewed paternity leave. It was no longer something that just sounded like a good thing, it was a necessary thing for his family. It was crucial that he take it and now he is advocating for more fathers to be able to. In his piece for the NYT Ohanian points out something that Motherly has previously reported on: It is hard for fathers to take paternity leave even when their government or employer offers it.

A report from Dove Men+Care and Promundo (a global organization dedicated to gender equality) found 85% of dads surveyed in the United States, the UK, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands would do anything to be very involved in the early weeks and months after their child's birth or adoption, but less than 50% of fathers take as much time as they are entitled to.

Dads need paid leave, but even when they have it social pressures and unrealistic cultural expectations keep them from taking it and they choose not to take all the time they can. Ohanian wants lawmakers and business leaders to make sure that dads can take leave and he wants to help fathers choose to actually take it.

"I was able to take 16 weeks of paid leave from Reddit, and it was one of the most important decisions I've made," Ohanian previously wrote in an essay for Glamour.

Ohanian recognizes that he is privileged in a way most parents aren't.

"It helped that I was a founder and didn't have to worry about what people might say about my 'commitment' to the company, but it was incredible to be able to spend quality time with Olympia. And it was perhaps even more meaningful to be there for my wife and to adjust to this new life we created together—especially after all the complications she had during and after the birth," he wrote for Glamour.

In his NYT piece, Ohanian goes further: "I get that not every father has the flexibility to take leave without the fear that doing so could negatively impact his career. But my message to these guys is simple: Taking leave pays off, and it's continued to pay dividends for me two years later. It should be no surprise that I also encourage all of our employees to take their full leave at Initialized Capital, where I am managing partner; we recently had three dads on paid paternity leave at the same time."

The GOAT's husband is making the same points that we at Motherly make all the time. Research supports paid leave for all parents. It benefits the baby and the parents and that benefits society.

By first taking his leave and then speaking out about the ways in which it benefited his family, Ohanian is using his privileged position to de-stigmatize fathers taking leave, and advocate for more robust parental leave policies for all parents, and his influence doesn't end there. He's trying to show the world that parents shouldn't have to cut off the parent part of themselves in order to be successful in their careers.

He says that when his parental leave finished he transitioned from being a full-time dad to a "business dad."

"I'm fortunate to be my own boss, which comes with the freedoms of doing things like bringing my daughter into the office, or working remotely from virtually anywhere Serena competes. My partners at Initialized are used to seeing Olympia jump on camera—along with her doll Qai Qai—or hearing her babbling on a call. I tell them with pride, 'Olympia's at work today!' And I'll post some photos on Instagram or Twitter so my followers can see it too," Ohanian explains.

"The more we normalize this, on social media and in real life, the better, because I know this kind of dynamic makes a lot of men uncomfortable (and selfishly I want Olympia to hear me talking about start-ups!)," he says.

This is the future of family-friendly work culture. Take it from a guy who created an entire internet culture.

[A version of this post was originally published February 19, 2019. It has been updated.]

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