While the physical changes of pregnancy are very obvious, the most amazing changes — the re-wiring of the maternal brain — happen more subtly and often without the awareness of the new mother.
Perhaps you’ve wondered why you feel and think differently than before you had children.
We’ve all been there — we've felt weird or forgotten something and we blame it on ‘mummy brain.’
But is it a real thing? Do mothers’ brains change?
You might be surprised to hear that your brain actually needs to make adjustments for motherhood, both before and after your baby is born. Research is showing there are multiple changes taking place. Some of what we call “maternal instinct” could actually be the result of these adaptations.
Here are 5 things that tell us mummy brain is real:
#1: Your Brain Does Shrink – But It Also Grows!
You might have heard that a woman’s brain shrinks during pregnancy. It's a handy excuse when you miss appointments, lose your keys or can’t remember why you came to the supermarket. But it turns out this brain shrinkage is real – researchers have found the brains of healthy pregnant women shrink by up to 6%. Reassuringly, researchers also found the brain regains its pre-pregnancy size by 24 weeks after the birth.
But does it regrow in the same areas which shrank? Not necessarily.
In the first months after the birth, significant changes occur in specific parts of a woman’s brain. Parts that enhance her motivation to care for her baby, feel rewarded when her baby responds positively, and make her feel good about her mothering experience. Research also shows the more positively a mother talks about her baby, the more growth occurs in these areas of the brain.
Those glowing posts on social media from new mothers are actually helping them develop these important areas of the brain. And all those photos clogging up your news feed? Well, research also shows it is not accidental that mothers secretly (or not so secretly!) believe their baby is the most attractive. Looking at photos of their own smiling infant also sparks growth in these important areas of the brain. These findings may even eventually offer insight into the causes and treatment of postnatal depression.
#2: Oxytocin Levels – The Love Hormone Strikes Again
The fuel behind all the brain growth associated with good feelings about our babies is oxytocin – often known as the “feel good hormone”. Oxytocin levels increase during pregnancy and have a key role in childbirth, by powering uterine contractions. But they really come into play in the early postnatal period.
Enhanced by breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact and active involvement in the care of the infant, oxytocin is responsible for what we call “bonding” but might also be described as falling in love with our babies. Encouraging mothers of sick or premature babies in NICU to practice oxytocin-enhancing techniques such as Kangaroo Care may assist in bonding, which can be delayed by this enforced separation.
The elevated oxytocin levels which trigger feelings of bonding and love can make many new mothers feel differently – but often in a great way.
It's important to note that when synthetic oxytocin is used to induce and speed up labour, it does not act in the same way as natural oxytocin. It does not cross the blood-brain barrier. In fact, synthetic oxytocin use may impact bonding, as well as have an impact on stress and mood for the mother. Find out more here.
If you'd like to learn more about the amazing hormone, oxytocin, see our article: Oxytocin – 15 Fascinating Facts About The Love Hormone.
#3: Brain Changes Mean Working Smarter – And Harder
There is evidence that new mothers also experience growth in parts of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning and judgement – all important tools in a mother’s world. It even suggests that women might be smarter after giving birth.
The changes which occur with the birth of our first child are greatest, as all mothers will testify. Further study is needed to explore if the brain ever returns to its pre-motherhood state. Perhaps, like her body, a woman’s brain is not fully matured until she becomes a mother.
#4: Get Out Of My Head – Fetal Cells In The Brain
If it ever feels like your child has invaded every aspect of your life, then you probably won’t be surprised to hear they are in your brain as well.
Scientists have discovered fetal cells happily living in their mother’s brain, perhaps decades after birth. While nobody is quite sure why exactly this happens, it does seem the cells transfer into the mother’s body via the placenta or during breastfeeding.
The more pregnancies a woman has, the more crowded it can be in there, but it’s also thought cells from one pregnancy can migrate back to the uterus and into younger siblings. Research in this area is still in its infancy, but promising results suggest these cells might be protective against Alzheimer’s disease, have a role in the immune system and even act in a similar way to stem cells.
It’s really true, once you become a mother it may seem as though your children have taken over your thoughts.
#5: Right-Brained Thinking Becomes Prominent – An Adjustment For Some
If you’re naturally a right-brained thinker, you will probably adjust to caring for your baby more easily than mothers who are left-brain dominant. One area this has been observed to have particular impact is in learning the art of breastfeeding.
As explained by paediatrician and IBCLC Christina Smillie, the postnatal period is a time when left-brained activity is suppressed and right-brained activity enhanced. That’s great for the intuitive right-brained woman, whose strengths come into their own at this time. But for the typically left-brained thinker, her strengths not only take a back-seat in relevance but she is not as comfortable with the right-brained tools she needs to use instead.
The left-brained thinker wants facts: how often should her baby feed and for how long? What is the exact position she needs to hold her baby at the breast? Am I doing this right? She needs detailed instructions, step-by-step processes. She finds it hard to focus on the now without worrying about the future. Yet at the one time she most needs to, she will struggle to retain these details, can miss key information and find herself keeping charts and log-books in an effort to feel in control of data.
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes in her book Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers:
“How exactly do you use a right-brained approach to breastfeeding your baby? First, take some deep breaths and let go of those worries about doing things “wrong”. Instead of thinking of breastfeeding as a skill you need to master or a measure of your worth as a mother, think about breastfeeding primarily as a relationship. As you spend time with your baby, you’ll be more adept at reading her cues. As you hold her, your baby will be more comfortable seeking your breast. Breastfeeding will flow naturally out of your relationship.”
While it might be hard to see how this can help you, understanding how your left/right brain dominance impacts on early motherhood can be reassuring when you look at your friends and wonder how they can find it so easy – or hard – compared to your own experience.
The need to switch into right-brained thinking – or being able to make great use of your typical way of thought – can lead to you experiencing that ‘mummy brain’ feeling.
With so much to think about with the arrival of a new baby, chances are the last thing you will be thinking about are the changes to the act of thinking itself. Knowing there are physical causes to these changes can be reassuring on bad days, interesting on good ones and fascinating to ponder in the middle of night feeds. And if you ever need to, feel free to play the ‘mummy brain’ card because it really exists!
Recommended Reading: 30 Ways Your Relationship Changes After Having A Baby.