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11th Jan 2015

RESEARCH: Becoming a parent looks, neurologically, a lot like falling in love

Scientists link maternal feelings with reactions in the brain


Everything changes when you become a mum. But it’s the emotional changes – the overwhelming feelings of love, protectiveness and anxiety – that make the starkest difference to new mums.

These maternal feelings are largely neurological as they begin with reactions in the brain. They can even be felt before a woman has given birth, as pregnancy tampers with the structure of the brain. That’s according to an article in The Atlantic, which also details the neurological science behind the feelings we have as mums, as well as some of our behaviours.

The article says that scientists are 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 mum to her baby.

Scientists have also identified the exact part of the brain – an almond-shaped set of neurons known as the amygdala – that accounts for everything a mum experiences after giving birth, by helping to process memory and driving emotional reactions – positive and negative.

Helping to explain the way many new parents describe the feeling they have when they meet their newborns for the first time is the fact that becoming a parent looks, at least in the brain, a lot like falling in love.

The greatest change in a mum’s brain happens when she has her first child and it’s not clear whether or not the brain ever goes back to what it was like before childbirth. Personally, I’m not sure it ever does!