I was in a postpartum haze and feeling pretty much flattened by the ‘round-the-clock demands of three young children—ages 3, 1½, and just 4 weeks—when something pulled me into high alert. Erik, my newborn, was really irritable. Was he feverish? He seemed sick. He was crying a lot.
The exhausted new mom part of me tried to override a nagging inkling that I should take him to the doctor’s office. After all, it’s a lot of work to take a preschooler, a toddler, and a baby anywhere. Newborns do get colicky. Maybe it would be fine to wait it out.
But a persistent voice inside of me wouldn’t let go: What if he’s really sick? He’s just a newborn. I’ve never seen a baby quite this sick before.
We went. The doctor confirmed that my gut instincts had been bang on: I had a very sick baby on my hands. Within an hour, Erik was admitted to the hospital. Diagnosis: viral meningitis. He ended up spending a week in the hospital.
Gut instinct: It’s one of the most powerful tools we have as parents.
Maybe you’ve felt it: An urgent alert out of the blue. A sense of certainty based only on a hunch. This spidey-sense tells you there’s something you need to do, or something you’re pretty sure is true, even though on the face of it, the facts or the voices of authority seem to say otherwise.
Gut instinct is a hard-wired early warning system that alerts us to the possibility that there could be some sort of problem with our child—and subconsciously urges us to take a closer look or spring into action.
“It’s an information system that’s more powerful than Google,” says Deborah MacNamara, a developmental psychologist at Vancouver’s Neufeld Institute.
It sounds almost too good to be true. But there’s actually a ton of science to explain what’s happening:
Gut instincts are a type of cognitive shortcut.
Our brains would be seriously overloaded if we had to consciously think through every single action or decision that we make over the course of a day. (Start with breathing and walking!) So as we gain experience with a particular task, we automate the thinking associated with that task so that we can free up brain resources for other tasks that require a bit more conscious thought.
We tend to view ourselves as incredibly rational creatures who think things through consciously and deeply, says psychologist and Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. But the majority of our thinking happens at an unconscious level, with little or no effort on our part. We don’t have to think through the need to leap across the room when a toddler is about to perform a gravity-defying act: We lunge and catch him before he nosedives out of his high chair or off the back of the couch. Gut instincts to the rescue—again!
Gut instincts are also silent telegraphs from our emotional system.
Ever feel that nagging sense that you’re forgetting something but can’t put your finger on it? That’s your subconscious tugging at you.
“Wordless stirrings” is how MacNamara, who’s also the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One), describes our parental gut instincts, subconscious messages designed to make you curious about what’s going on with your child.
Sometimes, your gut instincts alert you to little things—say your child is walking backward out of the room (hmm, is he hiding something?). They can also alert you to bigger things: Your usually rambunctious child is acting uncharacteristically lethargic (is he sick?) or your generally social child is holed up like a hermit in her room (did something happen to upset her?).
Whether the issue is minor or serious, the suspicion, worry, empathy, or fear it triggers can be a powerful source of information. “We aren’t always aware of all the emotions, but we feel the stirrings,” MacNamara says.
Gut instincts are a kind of automatic thinking that’s fed by our experiences.
That’s why parents report feeling them so often about their own kids: Instincts are most likely to be on track in situations in which we’ve had a lot of first-hand experience, research has shown. We clock countless hours caring for and observing our kids. We’re each pretty much the world’s top authority on our particular child!
This gives us an “incredible reservoir of information about our kids at our disposal at all times,” MacNamara says.
Even minute changes to a child’s behavior can be enough to alert a tuned-in parent to the possibility that there’s a problem. It’s why emergency room physicians often make a point of asking parents, “Just how sick does your child seem to you?”
“The deeper the relationship, the more accurate the intuition,” MacNamara says. Intuition flows from attachment, she adds.
How to make mom (and pop) instincts work for us:
Our challenge as parents, according to MacNamara, is to try to make sense of these stirrings within us. She says that as parents, we’re often reluctant to trust a sixth sense that we don’t fully understand, happening below our level of conscious awareness. We aren’t aware of all the information that our emotional system is picking up, nor are we aware of the filtering that’s taking place behind the scenes.
First, recognize that your gut is often—but not ALWAYS—smarter than your conscious self. Instincts can and do lead us astray, mostly in situations where we don’t have a lot of first-hand experience.
If, for example, you’re a brand-new parent and your newborn has a fever, you don’t have enough experience to rely on intuition alone in deciding whether to worry. In this case, you’d be better off just going with the conscious part of your brain—the part that will allow you to reach for a thermometer to take your baby’s temperature and tap into the wisdom of people who have more experience than you (by reading up on fevers, calling a mom friend, consulting the advice nurse).
It’s best when your conscious self and your intuitive gut work together.
Don’t bother trying to force your gut instinct to communicate with you. It’s not some sort of inner Ouija board. You pretty much have a hunch or don’t. But do make room in your life for rest and reflection. That creates more space for your senses to be able to pick up on these flickers of data that fuel mom-sense. “My intuition speaks to me most when I don’t try to make it answer to me: for example, when I’m in the shower, when I am working in the garden,” MacNamara says.
So don’t try to interrogate your gut instinct. Just listen.Pay close attention when your emotions are running strong. Instincts are most likely to function at their best in situations like these:
- When you’re advocating for your child. Convinced that your child’s doctor has missed the mark on a particular diagnosis? Unhappy with how a school conference is going? Keep asking questions until you’re satisfied with the answers—no harm in that. Or get a second opinion.
- When you’re facing tough decisions. Is a voice in your head telling you that your child’s school or daycare situation isn’t a good fit, even though it would be so much easier—and so much more convenient—to simply stick with the status quo? Feeling resistant about spending money on something you assume is in your child’s best interests? Dig a little. Talk to the teacher or other decision-makers. Talk to your child. Look into other options.
- When you’re feeling worried or uncertain, even if you can’t quite pinpoint the source of that anxiety. Did you feel a flicker of something odd when your teenager wouldn’t make eye contact with you when she walked through the front door? Is a sudden stab of worry urging you to make an extra check in on your depressed or anxious child? Ask yourself why you might be feeling this way. Don’t be afraid to follow through. Consider what else is going on in your child’s life. Make time and space to talk it through with your child or your partner. Don’t take “nuthin’” for an answer.
In three words: Trust your gut.
Over the years, since that scary day with my 4-week-old, that tiny pestering voice inside of me has had plenty to say. It’s alerted me to trouble and helped me make decisions. That time I took a visceral dislike to a well-regarded school I was touring to find a spot for my fourth child, who has autism? Let’s just say my gut sense was confirmed when the principal expressed his belief that bullying “just happens” and that there wasn’t much that staff could do to prevent it.
Whether it’s knowing 15 seconds ahead of time that your child is about to throw up—enough time to help him dash to the bathroom—or having a sixth sense that your child really needs to talk to you about something important (even if she’s trying to convince you otherwise), your gut instinct can save the day—or maybe even your child’s life.