Is mother's intuition real? It's complicated.

A mom might chalk up her gut feelings to mother's intuition. But the science behind it isn't well understood. (Getty Images)
A mom might chalk up her gut feelings to mother's intuition. But the science behind it isn't well understood. (Getty Images)

Is mother's intuition real? Last month, a viral TikTok in which the poster claimed that her mother's "bad dream" had saved her from a fatal shooting at a bar prompted more than 44,000 commenters to share their own experiences with the phenomenon. One claimed that their mom had a bad feeling ahead of Ariana Grande's 2017 concert in Manchester, England — target of a fatal bomb attack — and refused to go; other mothers seemingly predicted miscarriages, family deaths and tragic accidents.

But is this gut instinct grounded in science? Is it just coincidental? Are we reading more into these anecdotes due to confirmation bias? Here's what experts say.

It's complicated. Psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation media adviser Ernesto Lira de la Rosa says that there aren't a lot of studies or research to confirm whether mother's intuition is real, given the subjective nature of these stories. What's more, opinions are mixed as to the origin of what we commonly refer to as mother’s intuition, but its roots may be found in attachment theory.

The originators of this theory, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, attempted to explain why infants were drawn to a certain individual or individuals in moments of stress of need. Attachment theory states that humans are born with a need to bond to their caregivers and that the state of those early bonds echoes throughout a person’s life, dictating how well or how poorly that person bonds with others. For mother’s intuition, attachment theory explains that the child and caregiver — in this case, the mother — have forged a bond that makes the mother highly attuned to the child’s needs.

Licensed therapist Mayra Mendez says that the gut feeling that many refer to as mother’s intuition is a slowly built process. "By knowing your child, the child, in turn, knows you," she tells Yahoo Life. According to Mendez, this gut feeling starts to develop early and is important to listen to. “If the caregiver is open to connect, they will recognize the cues.”

Lira de la Rosa adds that parents can interpret the different cries of their child that others may not even notice. “They know how to distinguish their child’s cries to determine if the child is hungry or needs a diaper change, for example, so it would not be uncommon for parents to begin to trust their own intuition, given these early formative experiences and bonding with their children,” he tells Yahoo Life.

Another theory, he notes, is that genetics is at play. “Biological or birth parents do experience a lot of hormonal changes throughout pregnancy, and they do share DNA with their children,” he says. “So it is possible that this intuition is real and valid for many parents.”

No, Mendez and Lira de la Rosa both say. Mendez acknowledges that while traditional thinking about attachment theory sees biological mothers as holding the biggest responsibility to a child, she points out that not all babies have this bonding opportunity.

Lira de la Rosa does not believe that any biological connection is necessary for someone to experience parental intuition. “In my clinical work with adoptive parents, they also have reported this type of intuition with their children," he says. "I attribute this to the good qualities of a caregiver who is attuned to their child’s needs.”

Both Mendez and Lira de la Rosa have also observed this bonding with caregivers outside of the home, noting that they too can develop a sense for the child’s needs and cues when enough time is spent together. “That same bonding and attachment could happen with anybody. It’s not necessarily about being a mother, but more about promoting the capacity of bonding and attaching to someone who reads their cues and sounds without having a lesson in them," Mendez says.

While there may never be a satisfactory resolution to the question of whether mother’s intuition is real, the initial bonding between infant and parent does lead to a stronger ability for parent and child to relate to each other and develop a strong bond. Although stories of mothers having dreams or even hunches that compel them to request a child leave a bar or not attend a concert out of fear for their safety have led to close calls, these defy logical explanation.

One thing we do know? Mother's intuition — whether real or perceived — can be a good thing.

“A study by Gardner et al. found that mothers who did report higher levels of maternal intuition also reported higher levels of life satisfaction,” Lira de la Rosa says. This study also found that the more confidence a mother had in her own ability to respond to her child’s cues and needs, the more effective she was at doing so.