Becoming a mother is a life-changing experience.
Many women feel that certain aspects of their personality change after becoming a mother.
If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re right!
And later on, oxytocin, a hormone released into your bloodstream during birth and breastfeeding, helps your brain to consolidate these changes.
All of these changes to your brain help you prepare for, and cope with, the demands of motherhood.
Breastfeeding is so much more than just feeding your baby. It’s a relationship between you and your baby. When you breastfeed, you are relating to a person in a way you’ve never related to anyone before. Breastfeeding helps develop new pathways in your brain that recreate and reinforce your maternal behaviour.
How Breastfeeding Can Change Your Brain
Here are 7 ways breastfeeding can change your brain.
#1: Less Stress Hormone Release
While you are breastfeeding, the let-down reflex releases oxytocin from your brain and into your bloodstream, causing your breasts to release milk. At the same time, the release of oxytocin reduces the levels of stress hormones in your blood.
In one study, 10 breastfeeding and 10 non-breastfeeding mothers participated in a graduated treadmill experiment. Researchers found that the breastfeeding mothers released significantly less stress hormone, when compared with those not breastfeeding.
Another study found that among mothers with no depressive or anxiety symptoms, breastfeeding mothers showed a lower stress hormone response than non-breastfeeding mothers, in response to a standardised social stress test.
Yet another study showed that when breastfeeding mothers either breastfed or held their babies, they experienced lower stress hormone levels. However, when the same mothers were exposed to a stress test, only the mothers who had breastfed show no increase in stress hormone levels. This effect continued for about 30 minutes after the breastfeed.
It appears that breastfeeding provides mothers with a buffer of stress protection. And, since breastfeeding is usually frequent, and ongoing, the protection is reinforced several times each day.
#2: Less Activation Of The Brain’s Fear Response
The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for fear responses. Research has shown that, when oxytocin was delivered intranasally to men, it reduced activation of the amygdala, therefore helping to reduce fear and anxiety.
This could be good news for breastfeeding mothers, as they benefit from multiple releases of oxytocin every day.
#3: Improved Social And Emotional Skills
Oxytocin (when delivered intranasally to men) has also been found to enhance social interpreting skills, improve memory of positive social information (especially of happy faces), and improve recognition memory for faces.
It also helps people to identify positive emotional facial expressions more accurately, improve their ability to recognise fear, and improve their ability to infer the mental state of others, using social cues from the eye region.
These things might also be relevant for breastfeeding mothers, due to the fact that oxytocin is released multiple times each day.
#4: Enhanced Sensitivity To Your Baby’s Cry
Research has found that several areas of a breastfeeding mother’s brain show significantly greater activity, in response to their babies’ cries, compared with the brains of mothers not breastfeeding. The researchers suggest these brain activations in breastfeeding mothers could facilitate a greater capacity to understand their babies’ feelings, and respond in an appropriate way.
In an animal study, female rats were inhibited from making oxytocin after giving birth. Interestingly, these rats did not display usual maternal behaviours (e.g. there was a marked delay in the onset of pup grouping).
#5: Improved Foraging Skills
Research has found that object-in-place memory, a cognitive function which assists in finding things, improved in lactating female rats, and was maintained for several weeks after weaning.
So, it could be that breastfeeding also helps you to find things more easily!
#6: Your Brain Map Changes
Research has shown that in a mother rat’s cortex, the area that is devoted to the chest doubled in size while the rat was breastfeeding. The researchers of this study indicated: “It is probable that human lactation, for example, results in substantial representational remodelling in most or all of more than 10 different somatosensory representational areas, as well as in a number of motor and premotor zones.”
That is basically saying that breastfeeding could change various parts of the brain.
#7: Enhanced ‘Mama Bear’ Effect
The process of a baby suckling at the breast facilitates the formation of new pathways in your brain. This helps you to be more aggressively protective towards your baby, while remaining relatively calm. In other words, breastfeeding helps to reinforce the ‘mama bear’ effect.
To test this, a study assessed three groups of women: 18 breastfeeding mothers, 17 non-breastfeeding mothers, and 20 non-mothers. Each woman was asked to undertake computerised time-reaction tasks, reacting to a research assistant posing as a ‘rude’ study participant, by delivering blasts of sound.
The researchers found that breastfeeding mothers ‘punished’ the rude research assistant by delivering sound blasts that were nearly twice as loud and long as those delivered by non-breastfeeding mothers, and more than twice as loud and long as those delivered by non-mothers.
At the same time, the breastfeeding mothers’ systolic blood pressure was found to be about 10 points lower than the non-breastfeeding mothers, and 12 points lower than non-mothers.
Wow! So the cliché ‘Motherhood changes you forever’ really is true, and breastfeeding is a part of this.