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.

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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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[Editor's note: While Motherly loves seeing and sharing photos of baby Archie and other adorable babies when the images are shared with their parents' consent, we do not publish pictures taken without a parent's consent. Since these pictures were taken without Markle's permission while she was walking her dogs, we're not reposting them.]

Meghan Markle is a trendsetter for sure. When she wears something the world notices, and this week she was photographed wearing her son Archie in a baby carrier. The important thing to know about the photos is that they show the Duchess out for a walk with her two dogs while wearing Archie in a blue Ergo. She's not hands-free baby wearing, but rather wearing an Ergo while also supporting Archie with her arm, as the carrier isn't completely tight.

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When British tabloids published the pictures many babywearing devotees and internet commenters offered opinions on how Markle is holding her son in the photo, but as baby gear guru Jamie Grayson notes, "it is none of our business."

In a post to his Facebook page, Grayson (noted NYC baby gear expert) explained that in the last day or so he has been inundated with hundreds of messages about how Markle is wearing the carrier, and that while he's sure many who messaged with concerns had good intentions he hopes to inject some empathy into the conversation.

As Grayson points out, these are paparazzi photos, so it was a private moment not meant for world-wide consumption. "This woman has the entire world watching her every move and action, especially now that she and Harry are leaving the umbrella of the royal family, and I honestly hope they are able to find some privacy and peace. So let's give her space," he explains, adding that "while those pictures show something that is less than ideal, it's going to be okay. I promise. It's not like she's wearing the baby upside down."

He's right, Archie was safe and not in danger and who knows why the straps on Markle's carrier were loose (maybe she realized people were about to take pictures and so she switched Archie from forward-facing, or maybe the strap just slipped.)

Grayson continues: "When you are bringing up how a parent is misusing a product (either in-person or online) please consider your words. Because tone of voice is missing in text, it is important to choose your words carefully because ANYTHING can be misconstrued. Your good intentions can easily be considered as shaming someone."

Grayson's suggestions injected some much-needed empathy into this discourse and reminded many that new parents are human beings who are just trying to do their best with responsibilities (and baby gear) that isn't familiar to them.

Babywearing has a ton of benefits for parents and the baby, but it can take some getting used to. New parents can research safety recommendations so they feel confident. In Canada, where the pictures in question were snapped, the government recommends parents follow these safety guidelines when wearing infants in carriers:

  • Choose a product that fits you and your baby properly.
  • Be very careful putting a baby into—or pulling them out of—a carrier or sling. Ask for help if you need it.
  • When wearing a carrier or sling, do not zip up your coat around the baby because it increases the risk of overheating and suffocation.
  • Be particularly careful when using a sling or carrier with babies under 4 months because their airways are still developing.
  • Do not use a carrier or sling during activities that could lead to injury such as cooking, running, cycling, or drinking hot beverages.

Health Canada also recommends parents "remember to keep your baby visible and kissable at all times" and offers the following tips to ensure kissability.

"Keep the baby's face in view. Keep the baby in an upright position. Make sure the baby's face is not pressed into the fabric of the carrier or sling, your body, or clothing. Make sure the baby's chin is not pressed into their chest. Make sure the baby's legs are not bunched up against their stomach, as this can also restrict breathing. Wear the baby snug enough to support their back and hold onto the baby when bending over so they don't fall out of the carrier or sling. Check your baby often."

Meghan Markle is a new mom who was caught off guard during a moment she didn't expect her baby to be photographed. Every parent (no matter how famous) has a right to privacy for their child and the right to compassion from other parents. If we want people to learn how to safely babywear we can't shame them for trying.

Mama, if you've been shamed for wearing your baby "wrong" don't feel like you need to stop. Follow the tips above or check in with local baby-wearing groups to get advice and help. You've got this.

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We often think of the unequal gender division of unpaid labor as a personal issue, but a new report by Oxfam proves that it is a global issue—and that a handful of men are becoming incredibly wealthy while women and girls bear the burden of unpaid work and poverty.

According to Oxfam, the unpaid care work done by women and girls has an economic value of $10.8 trillion per year and benefits the global economy three times more than the entire technology industry.

"Women are supporting the market economy with cheap and free labor and they are also supporting the state by providing care that should be provided by the public sector," the report notes.

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The unpaid work of hundreds of millions of women is generating massive wealth for a couple of thousand (predominantly male) billionaires. "What is clear is that this unpaid work is fueling a sexist economic system that takes from the many and puts money in the pockets of the few," the report states.

Max Lawson is Oxfam International's Head of Inequality Policy. In an interview with Vatican News, he explained that "the foundation of unpaid work done by the poorest women generates enormous wealth for the economy," and that women do billions of hours of unpaid care work (caring for children, the sick, the elderly and cooking, cleaning) for which they see no financial reward but which creates financial rewards for billionaires.

Indeed, the report finds that globally 42% of women can't work for money because of their unpaid care responsibilities.

In the United States, women spend 37% more time doing unpaid care work than men, Oxfam America notes in a second report released in cooperation with the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

"It's an economy that is built on the backs of women and of poor women and their labour, whether it's poorly paid labour or even unpaid labour, it is a sexist economy and it's a broken economy, and you can only fix the gap between the rich and the poor if at the same time you fix the gap between women and men," Lawson explains.

According to Lawson, you can't fight economic inequality without fighting gender equality, and he says 2020 is the year to do both. Now is a great time to start, because as Motherly has previously reported, no country in the world is on track to eliminate gender inequality by 2030 (one of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by 193 United Nations member countries back in 2015) and no country will until the unpaid labor of women and girls is addressed.

"Governments around the world can, and must, build a human economy that is feminist and benefits the 99%, not only the 1%," the Oxfam report concludes.

The research suggests that paid leave, investments in childcare and the care of older adults and people with disabilities as well as utilizing technology to make working more flexible would help America close the gap.

(For more information on how you can fight for paid leave, affordable childcare and more this year check out yearofthemother.org.)

News

It's been more than a decade since federal guidelines were implemented to ensure nursing mothers have the time and space to pump at work, but as Motherly has previously reported, many mothers still find it extremely challenging to maintain a pumping schedule in the workplace.

This week a new study out of the University of Georgia showed that while most women report having access to private spaces and break times for pumping there are still significant "gaps in access to workplace breastfeeding resources" and the researchers recommend employers take action to reduce breastfeeding disparities.

"We know that there are benefits of breastfeeding for both the mother and the infant, and we know that returning to work is a significant challenge for breastfeeding continuation," says Rachel McCardel, a doctoral student at UGA's College of Public Health and lead study author. "There is a collective experience that we wanted to explore and learn how can we make this better."

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The challenges of breastfeeding in 2020

There is a lot of pressure on mothers to exclusively breastfeed, but nearly half of mothers feel like they must make a choice between breastfeeding and keeping their job. A baby's mother is the best person to decide whether the infant should be breastfed, formula-fed or both, but it should be her choice. When workplace supports for breastfeeding are not in place many mothers feel like they don't have a choice at all.

Public health campaigns and social norms reinforce breastfeeding as the best choice, but a recent survey from Areoflow found that 1 in 3 people (31%) "do not believe employers should be required to provide a lactation room" but at the same time, 90% of those surveyed stated that they believe women should be allowed to pump at work.

For too many women, those contradicting messages mean that pumping at work is an uncomfortable experience, something they need to do nearly in secret. It's an example of the many ways in which mothers are supposed to parent as though they don't work but pretend they aren't parents when at work.

Calling for change in 2020

Half the states in America explicitly protect the rights of nursing parents in the workplace, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and federal law also provides protections to nursing workers under the Affordable Care Act. Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act—but millions of working mothers are not covered by those protections, and the new research out of the University of Georgia's College of Public Health suggests that even mothers who are need more support from their employers.

Heather Padilla is an assistant professor at UGA's College of Public Health and the co-author of the study. She recommends employers "designate a person who is responsible for making sure that women who are preparing for the birth of their baby understand what resources they have available to them when they return to work," she said.

Supervisors or HR directors could fill this role, and would fill a gap between company policy and personal experience. Padilla and McCardel found that many women "said they hadn't expected to get much help from their employers, and there was a general lack of communication about the resources available to them."

The work Padilla and McCardel have done reinforces the work we at Motherly are doing: In 2020 we are calling for change, and demanding support for mothers feeding their babies.

Mamas need to work + babies need to eat

For many American mothers work is not a choice, it is a necessity. Mothers are increasingly the breadwinners for their families and it is very hard for mothers, even those with working partners, to be a stay-at-home parent in 2020.

We need paid family leave and protection from breastfeeding discrimination. We need employers to support working mothers who choose to pump, and we need to reduce the stigmatization of formula feeding.

Mama, we see you pumping in your office and mixing formula bottles to take to day care. We see how hard it is and we support you. Know that no matter what your baby is eating—bottled breast milk, formula, or some combination (because breastfeeding doesn't have to be all or nothing)—we know you are working so hard to provide it.

We have declared 2020 the #yearofthemother. Join us, and call for change because McCardel is right—this is a collective experience and it is one we can make better for the mothers who come after us.

News

When it comes to taking care of the baby and the house, modern dads say they want to be equal partners.

But when Saturday arrives, research shows men are often relaxing while women are the ones doing unpaid housework with a “leisure time" discrepancy of more than 50 minutes a day on the weekends.

The study revealed that women were more likely than men to spend their weekends watching kids or performing housework.

So after a long week of watching kids or clocking hours on the job, what does mom do more of than dad? Work.

Claire M. Kamp Dush, Ph.D., an associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University, and lead author of the new study, says she is hopeful we can all find more balance. It's just going to take some hard discussions—and an understanding that there's more than one way to load a dishwasher or dress a baby.

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The study published in the journal Sex Roles saw Ohio State researchers tracking how 52 dual-income couples spent their time on a minute-by-minute basis as they welcomed their first child. The participating couples kept time diaries for workdays and non-workdays during the third trimester and for about three months after the baby's birth.

The researchers expected to see a lot of entries where mom and dad were doing childcare or housework together, but they didn't.

“Men actually increased their time doing leisure while she was doing work across the transition of parenthood," Kamp Dush shares. “It actually got worse once the baby was there."

According to Kamp Dush, there are a couple of factors behind this disappointing dynamic.

“One thing that's going on is women have a lot of societal pressure put on them to be perfect mothers. So if something is less than perfect with the baby or the house, the consequences are coming back on them," she explains, adding this pressure to have everything done to high standards may lead some moms to micromanage their partners.

If a dad is slacking, Kamp Dush suggests moms ascertain what his motivations are. Often, she says the solution may be as simple as empowering him to do things his own way. (Even if it isn't the outfit you would have picked for the baby...)

“It may also be the case that he just doesn't want to do it and he enjoys his leisure time," says Kamp Dush. If that's the case, she suggests calmly explaining the cost that his rest requires you pay. That may prompt him to do a bit more because, as Kamp Dush says, “He might also enjoy having a happier spouse and co-parent."

The earlier you can have these conversations, the better

Unaddressed resentment in relationships tends to build overtime, which is why it's essential to check in on how you (and your partner) are feeling early and often.

Kamp Dush suggests moms with heavy mental loads write down the tasks and duties they're dealing with. Then rip the list in half and hand it to dad. Couples can certainly negotiate the listed responsibilities, but the important thing is that they're not all on mom.

“Then, you're going to have to let it go," she explains. “Men know how to do these things. As women, we need to just let them do it."

Dads need to do 50 minutes more of unpaid work

The gender disparity in unpaid work hurts our careers, our families and our relationships, but it doesn't have to.

According to the Promundo's State of the World's Fathers' report, if men did 50 minutes of unpaid work a day we could close the gender gap.

"We need men to do our share. Fifty minutes more to relieve women of 50 minutes less would get us really close to equal," the president and CEO of Promundo, Gary Barker, tells Motherly.

When dads are more empowered and moms feel like their household responsibilities are more balanced, the whole family is going to be better off.

[A version of this post was first published July 29, 2018. It has been updated.]

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