I am a first-time mom. I have no idea what I am doing. My husband has no idea what he is doing. We have never done this before. There is no instinct.
Telling a new parent to trust their "instincts" is like throwing them under the bus! You should be able to trust your doctor, pediatrician, lactation consultant, if not, get a new one.
I feel like when they people say this, what they are really saying is "Well I didn't do that, but I did this, and it worked." Well great that it worked for you, but that doesn't mean it's right for everyone. And honestly, I don't trust family and friends as much as I trust my doctor. After all, how could someone who was trained to care for babies know less than me, a new mom who has never cared for a baby?
I feel that some people think just because they became parents they know it all and do not need to listen to their doctors or pediatricians, and thus feel like they can tell others what to do. Just because your child survived bed sharing and blankets before age one (for example), does not mean I am willing to take the risk! I also feel this is how so many parents end up losing their kids because they get bad advice from family and friends or think it can never happen to them as they have this "instinct", and then when it does, it is world-shattering as Jordan DeRosier discovered when her son died from a blanket (source).
My mom had bumpers, blankets, stuffed toys, in my crib growing up and yes I survived, but after reading horror story after horror story and being told time and time again by our birth class instructor, doctors, midwives, etc about sleep safety, I was not willing to risk my child's life if there is no need to. Did my daughter really need to sleep in the same bed? Did she really need a blanket? No, these were not things I believed our daughter needed. Plus side of not sharing a bed, we never had to deal with transferring her to the crib, which co-sleeping parents tend to struggle with. (However, these may be things you decide to do and that is your decision, just know they do come with risks.)
Everyone likes to make doctors out to be the bad guy and sure they can be wrong at times, but so can you and anyone else. This mom truly believed her son was lying for years about not being able to see well until an eye doctor finally proved to her that her son, indeed, had poor eyesight (source).
A doctor is going to give you advice based on what they know from research and have experienced first hand. You have the option to follow or to not follow that advice. If you choose not to and things worked out, it is not instinct, your choice just worked. Your doctor's advice might have worked as well if you had given it a chance or it might not have. This is problem-solving and decision making, not instinct. You do not just know that your doctor is wrong, you are just stubborn or skeptical and want to try something else, which is totally your call!
For example, my doctor recommended coconut oil for my daughter's cradle cap, but I didn't have any on hand so I looked up alternatives and found baby oil would work too, which we had on hand. I used that instead and her cradle cap cleared up after two days. There was no "instinct" telling me not to trust my doctor. I just didn't want to make a trip to the store so I found an alternative solution. I got lucky that it worked, if it had not, then I would have tried coconut oil next.
I think people have a tendency to throw around the word instinct without understanding what it truly means, so here is the definition:
"To qualify as an instinct, the behavior should be automatic, irresistible, triggered by something in the environment, occur at some particular time during development, require no training, be unmodifiable and occur in all individuals of a species." (Source)
To me, this leaves only human emotions to being a true instinct as you can't suppress how you feel, so everyone has them, but science says otherwise:
"Many psychologists consider instinct and emotion similar in that both are automatic. For example, fear is both an emotion and an instinct. However, while instincts are immediate, irrational, and innate, emotions have the potential to be more rational and part of a complex feedback system linking biology, behavior, and cognition." (Source)
With that definition in mind, motherhood comes with no instincts. If being a mom was an instinct, then there wouldn't be abortions or abandoned babies, women wouldn't suffer from postpartum depression, all women would have children and would continue to reproduce, which just is not the case.
Another phrase that is often used is "gut feeling," which I think is more appropriate, but I don't think this is a special mom ability. I see this as problem-solving, which anyone can do.
For example, my husband and I both had a feeling breastfeeding wasn't working as our baby was fussy and not dirtying as many diapers as she should have, so we saw the pediatrician and lactation consultant. We were both right as she had lost too much weight. It wasn't just me that had a bad feeling, but my husband as well. This was not a "mom superpower." (By the way, breastfeeding is not an instinct and it does not come naturally. If it did, more women would do it and there wouldn't be a need for lactation consultants. Anyone who says it just came naturally, got lucky.)
Another example is just last week when my daughter had a pretty bad diaper rash. The skin had broken and at the same time, she had a tiny amount of blood in her poop, which only showed up a couple of times. My husband and I began to have concerns that it was more than just diaper rash. I paid $20 to be told to alternate between Neosporin and Desitin and to change her diaper often, and the kicker, the blood was most likely coming from the open wound! BUT it was worth the trip to the doctor's office because I did not know that I needed to or that I could use Neosporin on her sore. After a few days, it cleared up, and we now know what to do next time so there would be no need for a rush to the doctor's office.
We also had a scare back when our baby was only maybe three months. She was super fussy, just out of a blue, so we called the nurse helpline. The nurse told us to give her some Tylenol, which helped and she went to sleep, and then to go to urgent care in the morning. Turns out she was totally fine, nothing wrong, just a really bad night and the doctors working at the time were so sweet. They told us we were doing everything right and that we were great parents. Maybe we just need new family and friends, because the doctors so far have been the nicest and most understanding when it came to parenting. Even our lactation consultant was super supportive when we decided to switch over to formula!
Anyone can have gut feelings or reactions, but how we act on them comes from experience. First-time parents do not have experience raising babies because they have never had one so they will rely on their doctors, books, family, and friends for help. Instead of telling them to "trust their gut," direct them to someone who can give them the advice or help they need, preferably someone trained in whatever it may be. If they have already received advice, don't belittle their choice to follow that advice. Remember, what worked for you may not work for them or you may have taken risks that they are not willing to take.
First-time parents, do not be afraid to ask for help. There is no parenting instinct and it does not come naturally. It is okay to feel as if you have no idea what you are doing. Anyone who claims they know it all is probably lying. Parenthood is a long journey, you learn as you go!