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Mother's intuition: Why we should follow our 'gut feelings'

April 18, 2013 at 9:17 AM ET

Michelle Mathis sat with her extended family opening presents on Mother’s Day four years ago.

Michelle Mathis and her daughters Alexa, Shay, Delia and husband Brock
Courtesy of Michelle Mathis
Michelle Mathis, daughters Alexa, Shay, Delia and husband Brock. An inexplicable urge to check on Delia during a family party led her to save the girl from drowning.

Suddenly, she felt an overwhelming urge to find her 2-year-old daughter. Delia was fully dressed and didn’t have plans to join her 5-year-old sister, Shay, in the pool, but had gone to play somewhere else, out of sight.

Michelle walked outside. “There, in the middle of the deep end of the pool was Shay, treading water and holding something up,” describes Michelle. “I saw Delia’s bow floating at the top of the water and yelled to Shay ‘Is that Delia?’ Her small voice replied ‘yes’ and I immediately dove in. Shay had saved Delia from sinking, but being so small herself wasn’t able to keep Delia’s head above the water.”

Mother of three Andrea Alley, of Manchester, N.H., was on her way to pick up her toddler son, Timmy, from daycare. Andrea was later than usual, but nothing that would have ordinarily caused her alarm. As she began driving, she felt compelled to get to the daycare center as quickly as possible.

Andrea Alley and her children Timothy, Joanna, Caroline and husband Barry
Courtesy of Andrea Alley
Andrea Alley, children Timothy, Joanna and Caroline, and husband Barry. Normally a laid-back mom, Andrea suddenly felt the urge to race to her son's daycare center.

“When I arrived at his daycare, I heard crying from the classroom bathroom and found Timmy and a teacher wiping blood from his forehead. Timmy and some of the other children were brought into another classroom that wasn’t their own to wait for their parents to pick them up, and just two minutes earlier, my son had fallen and knocked his head on the corner of a wooden play center. I felt even more horrible about being ‘late.’ If I’d gotten there at my normal time, he wouldn’t have been in that classroom, or at the very least, he would have avoided that particular injury. That was our first trip to the ER.”

When Bailey Uyeno’s eldest child, Kai, was born, doctors were convinced he had severe hearing loss. Uyeno, a Newport Beach, CA mom, brought her son to the audiologist that the hospital had referred her to and felt instantly that something was wrong.

“I remember looking around the room and feeling very uneasy. I didn't like the room, the doctor was very cold, and my mouth was very dry. When the doctor returned with the results, she told me, with no emotion, that Kai had severe hearing loss in his left ear and moderate to severe loss in his right ear. Then she showed me all the different types of hearing aids I could choose from. I looked at Kai and wondered how they could even make a hearing aid small enough to fit his tiny ear. He was only five pounds at the time.”

Unable to shake her uneasiness, Kai followed her intuition and sought a second opinion.

“When we went to the second audiologist, everything felt different. She ran a battery of tests and when she was finished, explained that Kai had a very mild hearing loss in his left ear and his right ear was perfect. Kai is now almost 3 years old and falls within normal range of hearing. I can't help but wonder how different things would have been if I hadn’t listened to my inner voice.”

Whether you characterize it as a sixth sense, unconscious knowledge, a gut instinct or something else, mother’s intuition isn’t merely folk wisdom.

Bailey Uyeno and her son, Kai
Courtesy of Bailey Uyeno
Bailey Uyeno trusted her gut feeling when she sought a second opinion on her son Kai's hearing problems.

“Mother’s intuition is absolutely real and is something that you need to listen to,” says Michelle Mathis, of Cardiff by the Sea, CA, who said she’s heard many stories similar to hers – mothers who felt the unexplained urge to check their children right at the moment something was going horribly wrong. “These situations shouldn’t be labeled as mere ‘coincidence’, but rather a prompt the mother is receiving to help and protect her child.”

Of course, people tend to remember their intuitive hunches that turn out to be right -- and forget the million and one times an intuition turns out to be nothing (like all the times you check the baby just to make sure she's breathing... and she is).

But Dr. Victor Shamas, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, firmly believes in the power of intuition. “I describe intuition as knowing something without knowing how you know.”

Several years ago, Shamas conducted a study of over 100 pregnant women during their first trimester to find out how many could correctly identify the gender of their baby based on instinct. Of those studied, 70 percent predicted the gender of their unborn child correctly, which they described as knowing through a “gut feeling” or a dream.

“Many psychologists believe that there are a whole lot of things happening unconsciously,” says Shamas. "The ancient Romans believed that human beings have some sort of guiding mechanism built into you, and I agree that as humans, there is some sort of self-protective mechanism that guides us through life.”

Most mothers say that while their intuition isn’t necessarily stronger because they are a mother, they have more of a responsibility to listen to it now that children are involved.

“Before having children I didn't always listen to my inner voice,” says Bailey Uyeno, “but when it comes to my children, I know that what my inner voice is telling me is what’s best for my child.”

Scientifically, intuition is difficult to explain because it’s usually a one-off occurrence, something that doesn’t happen repeatedly or under the same circumstances each time.

“We are able to document that someone’s intuition is correct,” explains Shamas, “but getting at what the underlying mechanism is is much more difficult. When something is not based on logic or perception, such as something you can see, smell, taste, touch or infer, it becomes somewhat mysterious. Intuition is essentially tapping into something, but we’re not sure what. It might be one of the impenetrable mysteries of human life.”

Andrea Alley was surprised when she felt the sudden urge to rush to her son’s daycare. “I’m a pretty laid back parent and react well under pressure. I actually might say that I have no intuition because I’m not an alarmist and probably least likely to feel the pull. But when in doubt, listen to the voice and obey the pull!”

Shamas says this connection of mother to child might be more deeply rooted than what one might initially think.

“In psychology we have a term called intersubjectivity. This is when your awareness crosses over into someone else’s awareness. Empathy is one example of this. When a woman is pregnant and the mother and child share one body, it must somehow facilitate some sort of intersubjective connection. I cannot say that universally being a mother increases your intuitiveness, but it’s hard to deny the intuitive connection a mother has with their child.”

Perhaps it’s the birth connection, or maybe the ancient Romans were right. While mother’s intuition may remain of life’s greatest mysteries, there’s no denying it to those who have experienced it.

“Listening to my intuition was a very important lesson for me to learn as a mother and I am lucky I got to learn it so early on,” says Uyeno. “This experience has been a guide for me to block out the noise of others and always trust my motherly instincts, because no one knows my child better than me.”

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