It happens to most people at some point: One day, you look up and your Instagram feed has evolved from beach selfies in Ibiza to a swarm baby photos from friends and family and a few exes you were too lazy to unfollow. Lately, however, those shrieklings in their coordinated onesies seem, well, strangely cuter than you remember. While you’ve spent most of your life terrified by the prospect of pregnancy and parenthood, you now find yourself double-tapping every tiny human you flip past. It’s as if someone’s whispering in your ear: It’s time. But is it? Have you really caught baby fever?
What is baby fever?
What we refer to as “baby fever” is—to put it bluntly—a visceral emotional and physical reaction that can be triggered by everything from holding a cute baby to something as mundane as seeing an ad for babyGap, says Gary Brase, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University who has studied the phenomenon. Imagine how you might feel when you see your favorite flavor of ice cream. In the moment, Brase says, you just want ice cream—you don’t think about the calories, or the exercise it would take to burn off its effects. Similarly, “baby fever”—which is also referred to as “baby longing” among some researchers—is a feeling of desire to have a child that doesn’t consider the effort and cost of raising one in the moment.
Researchers are still trying to pinpoint exactly what causes this feeling to arise, Brase says. One surprise is that it’s not gender-exclusive: “Women experience these feelings more often than men do, but men have them, too,” Brase says. For women, the child-rearing impulse decreases with age, but among men, studies suggest that it can increase as they get older.
What motivates people to have children?
Many factors play into what researchers call the fertility decision-making process—orsimply, the decision to have kids. Baby fever is just one aspect of that, Brase says. Peer pressure seems to play a role, too—if friends and family are having babies, their experiences might subconsciously be interpreted as a reason for you to do it, too, Brase says. In one study of tweets with the hashtag #babyfever—yes, that was a real study—most were written (shocker) by women who had recently been around a baby.
Societal factors such as mortality and morbidity rates, the economy, and gender equality, can also influence the decision to have kids, Brase says. (Birth rates, for instance, tend to decline during times of economic recession.) As one might expect, evolution also plays a role: Research shows that people in non-industrialized societies are motivated to have children for very different reasons than people in industrialized societies are, says Lisa McAllister, a postdoctoral scholar at Pennsylvania State University who studies indigenous populations in the Bolivian Amazon. In the US, cultural shifts have made people delay reproduction to focus more on priorities such as their careers, she says.
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In non-industrialized populations like the one that McAllister studied, however, status is often strongly linked to family size, she says. Children indicate the health, wealth, and vitality of their parents. As adults, children tend to increase their parents’ influence in the community and take care of them as they age. In these societies, people commonly start having children in their teenage years and may continue to have kids for two to three decades.
In industrialized societies, however, status is not as closely linked with family size; it’s often measured by markers of economic wealth, she says. Children are perceived as being expensive to raise, and people have savings accounts and other assets to fund their later years. We also have smaller networks of family to help us with the task of childrearing, which makes it more difficult to take care of large numbers of kids. Infant mortality rates are lower, although still higher in the US than other wealthy countries.
As a result, many Americans do not spend their early adulthood having children. They spend that time investing in their careers, education, and other pursuits to increase their status and wealth, and the “biological drive to reproduce” kicks in later, McAllister says.
What role does our biological clock play in having children?
In the US, the average mother’s age at her first birth is 26.6, while the average father’s age at first birth is 30.9. The issue with delaying, at least for women, is that the reproductive lifespan is finite, McAllister says: It can take considerable time and effort to find the mate you want.
“You see women in the US who say: I really want a child? Why haven’t I had a child yet? And that’s what baby fever is,” she says. “It’s desiring this child, and you don’t see it so much in these more traditional populations because when they want a child, they have one. There’s not this mismatch between desire and ability to do.”
In other words, baby fever may be an evolved psychological mechanism, the body’s way of saying it’s time to pass on your genes, she says. But it could also be a side-effect of our culture—or a combination of both factors. Social expectations probably play a role, too, McAllister says. “We still consider women to be incomplete if they are not mothers. I’m not saying that’s true—it’s just what society seems to think, and so you have that going on as well.” Eventually, family members might ask about your plans to procreate, or you might notice that your friends are devoting more of their time to parenting, she says. There’s an evolutionary argument that we have evolved to seek status rather than to specifically want to have children.
Of course, not everyone in industrialized societies lives the same lifestyle. “Baby fever is definitely a thing, but it’s mainly been measured in middle class white women who are either getting a college education or were college educated,” McAllister says. More research is needed to understand how the childrearing impulse manifests itself among more diverse communities, as well as other phenomena related to fertility decision-making.