Baby On The Brain
The physical changes during pregnancy can be at the forefront of expectant mothers’ minds. As hormones change, feet can swell, stretch marks may begin to appear and the belly bulges as a tiny human grows inside. But the changes don’t stop there, because as the body changes, so does the brain.
“Baby brain”, also known as “mummy brain” is a well known term which usually connotes negative cognitive changes in women during pregnancy and after birth. Symptoms of “baby brain” include: memory lapses and the inability to concentrate, suggesting pregnancy is bad for the brain and does nothing more than turn your mind to mush.
But it seems, this is just a myth, no more than an old wives tale, as research shows something quite different…
The Real Mummy Brain
Having a baby does change the brain – yes, but the changes that occur are not bad, they are in fact good for you and your baby as they encourage healthy cognition and emotional bonding. Researchers of the study, The Plasticity of Human Maternal Brain: Longitudinal Changes in Brain Anatomy During the Early Postpartum Period tracked changes in grey matter through MRI scans of mothers’ brains at two points of postpartum (2-4 weeks and 3-4 months). Researchers Pilyoung et al., found:
Increased grey matter volume in the midbrain including the hypothalamus, substantia nigra, and amygdala.Pilyoung et al. 2015
This structural growth in the midbrain plays an important role in developing the magic that is “maternal instinct” and positive perception of the baby. The study also found changes took place in the prefrontal cortex region – the part responsible for decision making, learning and regulating feelings and thoughts.
Essentially, as you transition into motherhood, your brain transitions with you to prepare you for this new role. As a parent, you will face new and different, challenging problems. These alterations in the brain assist a mother in adapting to changes, solving problems that come with parenthood and enabling the mum to hone in on the baby’s needs.
So structural changes occur in the brains of mothers during pregnancy and early postpartum. But, these changes can also take place up to two years after giving birth.
Hoekzema et al., of Leiden University formed a research team at University of Barcelona to look at the effects of pregnancy on the brain. Their findings were similar to Pilyoung et al. ‘s. The study also used brain scanning to track changes in grey matter: “Significant grey matter changes in brain regions associated with social cognition and theory of mind”. These regions had the strongest response and lit up when the women looked at photos of their young children. Astoundingly, these changes were still appearing when researchers tested mothers two years after birth, demonstrating the long lasting positive effects of having a baby.
What About Dads?
Fathers, don’t fear, good things happen in your brain too. Researchers at Barllan University in Israel found care-giving and fatherhood showed activation of the “socio-cognitive circuits which were differentially linked with oxytocin and behavior”. What’s more is that the dad’s brain, like the mum’s brain “exhibited high amygdala activation”, these findings highlight how the brain grows stronger with parenthood.
- “Baby brain” is ultimately just a myth
- A decrease in grey matter in particular areas of the brain could boost a mums ability to care for her child
- The brain is plastic and motherhood is an experience that changes the brain
- The brain re-prioritises in order to allow the mother to develop a close, strong emotional bond with her baby
- Maternal feelings of “overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain”.
- Similar activation takes place in the father’s brain with regards to caregiving and parenthood.
The combined results of these studies pave the way for us to understand what really happens in a mum’s brain when they experience the life changing event of having a baby. The brain prepares mums-to-be by introducing structural changes in brain regions that support “maternal motivation and behaviors” that are associated with motherhood. Myths such as “baby brain” have long suggested that pregnancy and having children in general is bad for the brain, however, many of these claims are not science-backed.
Having a baby is a change the brain is prepared for – remember, the brain is plastic, it’s fantastic, and it adapts, changes and grows stronger with each experience.