Seeing the piece, “Baby Fever in Your 20s? Here’s What Experts Say That Means” sparked my interest in looking into research on what’s referred to as “baby fever.” Let’s take a look.
What I found most online involved research by psychological sciences researcher Gary Brase at Kansas State University. He and his wife did a study published in 2012, and he was on a research team that did another published in 2014.
The 2012 Study
In the 2012 study, the Brases had a sample of 337 undergrad students and 853 general population online participants, and three hypotheses about the existence of baby fever and why people have it:
The sociocultural view: People want to have a baby because they are taught gender roles. Women think they should have children because society says that is what they are supposed to do.
The byproduct view: Humans experience nurturance. When they see a cute baby they want to take care of it, and that makes them want to have a baby of their own. Baby fever is a byproduct — it is nurturance misplaced.
The adaptationist view: Baby fever is an emotional signal — like a suggestion sent from one part of the mind to the other parts — that this this could be a good time to have a child.
The Brases asked participants to describe what led them to want and not want to have a baby. Then based on the responses, they asked participants their attitudes toward children and fertility. They analyzed the data, and found the sociocultural and byproduct views were not great predictors of baby fever. The study did find that the adaptationist view more strongly explained baby fever. They indicate that positive exposure to babies created the “subconscious emotional signal” to want to have a baby. And negative exposure to babies created the opposite – “it made people shy away from parenthood.”
The 2014 Study
In the 2014 study, Brase and the team found similar results but through twitter. They evaluated nearly 500 tweets with the hashtag #babyfever. The results indicate that people often tweeted about baby fever after being around babies, and those who “shared positive feelings were usually in a romantic relationship.” Brase tells U.S. News & World Report Health these kinds of situational and emotional reporting by people show that baby fever is a “real phenomenon.”
Going Deeper: The Effects of Social Contagion & Pronatalism
To get at the roots of the phenomenon we need to go deeper – what’s drives the subconscious to send the emotional signal, which then creates the ‘fever’ emotion? Not biology. As Dr. Shannon Clark, associate professor at the University of Texas indicates, “there’s no one biological or physiological process that’s responsible for baby fever.”
A college student who is quoted in the U.S. News & World Report piece titled “Is Baby Fever Real,” gets at a theory of mine. She has no children, but found “the [baby fever] feeling started creeping up when she saw her older friends and older sister have children. ‘Baby fever feels like an irresistible urge to have a baby,’ she says. ‘You see babies and wish you had one of your own.’”
Why might she feel this way? Brase thinks baby fever is a “normal part of human psychology,” and aside from “normal” for all of us, I would tend to agree. I might call it more of a baby contagion effect. As social creatures, we can easily want what others have when we have a positive experience of what it is they have. A kind of social contagion can drive the emotional stirring people experience.
The sociocultural hypothesis may not have predicted the fever in the 2012 study, but I’d also posit that it provides ground to the adaptationist hypothesis, and for both genders. It relates to what I call the pronatalist Normality Assumption, part of which involves the embedded belief that we’re all supposed to want children. Perhaps when people have positive baby/child experiences, it can create the emotional surge of wanting, and feeling that wanting – what they believe they are supposed to feel – adds to the intensity of the experience of the fever. What is supposed to happen to them happened, which makes them feel good about themselves and socially connected with others.
Baby Chill or Nothing at All
Following the adaptationist hypothesis further, when the experience with babies is not positive, there’s no fever – instead maybe call it “baby chill.” If negative experience(s) draw us away from parenthood, it sits against the normative belief we are supposed to want it. Then of course there are those who would not describe their experience as negative, but who don’t experience the fever at all. In our behemoth pronatalist social and cultural system, not feeling they want a child can create self-doubt, ambivalence anxieties and inner suffering.
And even when it’s a positive experience, does the fever mean one actually wants to become a parent? If one feels the “irresistible urge” that can come with baby fever, it needs to cool off to answer this question. The fever has to come down in order to do the self-reflection necessary to decide whether one truly wants the entire parenthood experience.