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25th May 2019

This is how your brain changes when you become a mother

Trine Jensen-Burke

Becoming a mother turned my world upside-down in a million different ways.

I was 28. It was amazing and overwhelming, and scary and grounding and very, very full on – all rolled up into one.

This is the case for all of us, I would imagine – and never mind just the actual physical changes (lack of sleep, leaking boobs, trying to heal from having pushed a baby out your hoo-ha), the emotional and hormonal changes that take place can knock you sideways too.

In fact, researchers now argue that becoming a mum set off the single most rapid and dramatic neurobiological change of adult life.

Entering into motherhood is “a major event” for the brain, says Jodi Pawluski, a researcher at University of Rennes 1 in France who focuses on what she and her colleagues call the “neglected neurobiology” of the maternal brain. “It’s one of the most significant biological events, I would say, you would have in your life.”

Women experience a flood of hormones during pregnancy, childbirth, and breast-feeding that primes the brain for dramatic change in regions thought to make up the maternal circuit. Affected brain regions include those that enable a mother to multitask to meet baby’s needs, help her to empathize with her infant’s pain and emotions, and regulate how she responds to positive stimuli (such as baby’s coo) or to perceived threats. In the newborn months, a mother’s interaction with her infant serves as further stimulus to link her brain quite tangibly to her baby’s.

Some effects of those brain changes may moderate over time. Researchers have found that the anxiety or hypervigilance that many new mothers feel, for example, peaks in the first month postpartum and then diminishes. However, they suspect that other effects could end up lingering longer, shaping mothers even well past their child-rearing years and even influencing their relationships with future grandchildren.

In one key study, a team of researchers used anatomical magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brains of women who were not pregnant but hoped to be. The researchers followed up with images soon after childbirth and again two years later. For comparison, they scanned women who had never had a pregnancy.

After childbirth, the volume of gray matter in the mothers’ brains changed dramatically, particularly in regions involved in social processes and “theory of mind,” or the ability to attribute emotions and mental states to other people — key in raising a human.

Interestingly; the researchers also scanned men, those who became fathers during the study period and those who did not have a child, and found no comparable change in gray matter volume. However, other studies have shown that the more time a man spends as primary caregiver, the more activated the parental network in his brain becomes, and researchers suspect a similar effect may be present for others in a parental role.)