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If there is anything that is totally life changing, it is motherhood. When a woman gets a baby, there are numerous changes that occur. Unlike in other life changes, the birth of a baby affects all the aspects of a woman. Be it physically, mentally and even spiritually, a woman will never be the same. One of the organs in the body that is greatly affected is the brain
Because a lot of things do change, of course, but for new mothers, some of the starkest differences are also the most intimate ones—the emotional changes.Which, it turns out, are also largely neurological.
Even before a woman gives birth, pregnancy tinkers with the very structure of her brain, several neurologists told me. After centuries of observing behavioral changes in new mothers, scientists are only recently beginning to definitively link the way a woman acts with what’s happening in her prefrontal cortex, midbrain, parietal lobes, and elsewhere. Gray matter becomes more concentrated. Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. On the most basic level, these changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, help attract a new mother to her baby. In other words, those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain.
The maternal instincts, as they are commonly referred to, kick in and everything a woman thinks of revolves around their child.
Mapping the maternal brain is also, many scientists believe, the key to understanding why so many new mothers experience serious anxiety and depression. An estimated one in six women suffers from postpartum depression, and many more develop behaviors like compulsively washing hands and obsessively checking whether the baby is breathing.
“This is what we call an aspect of almost the obsessive compulsive behaviors during the very first few months after the baby’s arrival,” maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim told me. “Mothers actually report very high levels of patterns of thinking about things that they cannot control. They’re constantly thinking about baby. Is baby healthy? Sick? Full?”
“In new moms, there are changes in many of the brain areas,” Kim continued. “Growth in brain regions involved in emotion regulation, empathy-related regions, but also what we call maternal motivation—and I think this region could be largely related to obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In animals and humans during the postpartum period, there’s an enormous desire to take care of their own child.”
After a woman gives birth there are different brain activities that take place. These activities are believed to be the cause of behavior changes in a mother.
There are several interconnected brain regions that help drive mothering behaviors and mood.
Of particular interest to researchers is the almond-shaped set of neurons known as the amygdala, which helps process memory and drives emotional reactions like fear, anxiety, and aggression. In a normal brain, activity in the amygdala grows in the weeks and months after giving birth. This growth, researchers believe, is correlated with how a new mother behaves—an enhanced amygdala makes her hypersensitive to her baby’s needs—while a cocktail of hormones, which find more receptors in a larger amygdala, help create a positive feedback loop to motivate mothering behaviors. Just by staring at her baby, the reward centers of a mother’s brain will light up, scientists have found in several studies. This maternal brain circuitry influences the syrupy way a mother speaks to her baby, how attentive she is, even the affection she feels for her baby. It’s not surprising, then, that damage to the amygdala is associated with higher levels of depression in mothers.
Amygdala damage in babies could affect the mother-child bond as well. In a 2004 Journal of Neuroscience study, infant monkeys who had amygdala lesions were less likely to vocalize their distress, or pick their own mothers over other adults. A newborn’s ability to distinguish between his mother and anybody else is linked to the amygdala.
It is also interesting to note that the brain activities do not only affect the mother but also the child. It affects how the mother views babies in general. It also affects the way in which the mother tales care of the baby and her emotional status. There are also significant changes in hormonal levels.
The changes in hormonal and brain levels create a particular feeling. That feeling that a woman gets have been likened to the feeling of falling in love.
“Maternal oxytocin levels—the system responsible for maternal-infant bonding across all mammalian species—dramatically increase during pregnancy and the postpartum [period] and the more mother is involved in childcare, the greater the increase in oxytocin.”
Oxytocin also increases as women look at their babies, or hear their babies’ coos and cries, or snuggle with their babies. An increase in oxytocin during breastfeeding may help explain why researchers have found that breastfeeding mothers are more sensitive to the sound of their babies’ cries than non-breastfeeding mothers. “Breastfeeding mothers show a greater level of [brain] responses to baby’s cry compared with formula-feeding mothers in the first month postpartum,” Kim said. “It’s just really interesting. We don’t know if it’s the act of breastfeeding or the oxytocin or any other factor.”
Studies have also shown that these changes are more prevalent with the birth of the first child.
The greatest brain changes occur with a mother’s first child, though it’s not clear whether a mother’s brain ever goes back to what it was like before childbirth, several neurologists told me. And yet brain changes aren’t limited to new moms.
A study also showed that this phenomenon is not unique to women. Although it happens differently, men are also affected.
Men show similar brain changes when they’re deeply involved in caregiving. Oxytocin does not seem to drive nurturing behavior in men the way it does in women, Feldman and other researchers found in a study last year. Instead, a man’s parental brain is supported by a socio-cognitive network that develops in the brain of both sexes later in life, whereas women appear to have evolved to have a “brain-hormone-behavior constellation” that’s automatically primed for mothering. Another way to look at it: the blueprint for mothering behavior exists in the brain even before a woman has children.
It is imperative to note that nurturing and caregiving is indeed life changing.
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