Nesting, baby showers, and those sweet ultrasound pics might seem like the most exciting, dynamic way to prepare for the birth of your sweet little one. But internally, your brain is making massive and exciting changes, too, as a way to support your new role as a mom.
The truth is, preparing oneself to give birth and for the new demands of motherhood requires an entirely new set of skills, cognitions, and capabilities, and a woman’s brain makes enormous shifts during pregnancy and after birth in order to tackle the demands of the new responsibilities. The maternal brain circuitry—or the parts of the brain that are specifically used for the tasks associated with mothering—demonstrate increased brain activity and changes in structure and size during pregnancy and in the weeks and months following birth.
Exactly how your brain changes when you become a mom.
We’ve only recently started actually studying the exact nature of these changes in a mom’s brain. The prevailing data over the past few years has shown that some parts of the brain increase in size throughout pregnancy and postpartum, which is perhaps expected given a mother’s many new cognitive demands. However, a recent study using brain scans has shown a surprising and seemingly counterintuitive result: that some areas of gray matter in the brain actually shrink postpartum.
On the list of brain changes that occur are large hormonal shifts involving oxytocin and progesterone. These hormone fluctuations are essential in the bonding between a mother and baby. For example, a baby’s laughter or cries result in higher levels of maternal oxytocin. Some areas of your brain, such as the amygdala and the reward pathway, also see extraordinary increases in activity during pregnancy and postpartum. The amygdala—a brain structure that is tasked with memories and emotions like fear and anxiety—becomes very active, which could have had the evolutionary benefit of making moms more sensitive to their baby’s needs and emotions.
Another significant change has to do with the brain’s reward pathway, a series of brain structures that communicate through the usage of the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. This pathway, which tends to activate when there’s a pleasurable stimulus, is a key player in new mom brain changes, lighting up favorably whether the baby is crying or laughing. This is particularly important in maintaining a close bond between the two and maintaining a mom’s motivation to consistently care for her baby’s needs. Because as any mom knows, it’s a lot of work!
Motherhood is hard. It makes sense that your brain has to adapt.
Many physical, emotional, social, and cognitive elements are needed for a woman to make a healthy and happy transition into motherhood. By understanding these elements—and also understanding the tasks typically performed by the different parts of the maternal brain circuit—we are starting to piece together why, exactly, our brains change the way they do.
Biological, structural, and neural brain changes support a woman’s transition into motherhood; they serve to help her prioritize and be responsive to her baby’s needs, increase bonding, and even impact her planning and judgment. The reward pathway is especially essential in motherhood since a mother’s positive feelings toward her baby are associated with her increased sensitivity to baby’s signals. Neuroanatomical changes, such as the increased amygdala activity, will also help her process the cues the baby gives and be responsive to those cues.
All of these brain changes—which can help with emotional regulation, empathy, and stress management—are particularly adaptive for moms during those sleepless nights or when the baby is wailing for hours on end.
“Mommy brain” is real, according to science.
Some changes that occur in your brain when you become a new mom are harder to explain. For example, it may seem counterintuitive for parts of the brain to shrink during early motherhood. But experts think this might occur to make it easier to effectively accomplish tasks pertaining to motherhood, specifically. This comes at a cost: Yes, “mommy brain,” or memory loss when you become a mom, is very real! The current thinking is that certain functions are sacrificed in order for the brain to pour its resources into more specific motherhood-supporting brain capabilities, which can lead to fuzziness and memory loss. And as most mothers who experience “mommy brain” might tell you, these changes can be long term, lasting for years.
What happens in your brain can make it harder (or easier) to transition into motherhood.
Although these changes occur in all pregnant and postpartum moms, variations in neural and structural changes could potentially determine who eases into motherhood and who really struggles with it. Some mothers have a less responsive maternal brain circuit—which can affect their emotional health, feelings of capability in mothering, and ability to bond with baby—and other mothers may be especially sensitive to surges in certain hormones.
And while we don’t know all of the anatomical reasons why some moms struggle more than others in those early postpartum days, we do know that certain conditions and social situations can directly impact how responsive the brain is to a mother’s new role. For example, a mother with postpartum depression, PTSD, or who is under chronic stress might not experience the same amount of responsiveness in the reward system to a baby’s cries or cues as a mom for whom these factors don’t play a role. Certain conditions, such as exposure to chronic stress, could result in higher cortisol levels, thus also decreasing the mother’s sensitivity and reactiveness to her baby. Brain scans have been able to distinguish that the postpartum brain looks different neuroanatomically when experiencing certain mental health conditions. And the healthy functioning of the amygdala could be essential not only in mom’s sensitivity to baby’s cues but also in bonding and in the regulation of mom’s emotions postpartum.
This is just one more reason to make sure you’re taking care of yourself, too.
Taking steps to make the transition to motherhood a happy and healthy one.
The transition to motherhood is a complex one. Fortunately, your brain anatomy, medical history, and diagnoses are not the only determinants of your success and emotional well-being as a mother. A lot of mothers—especially first-time mothers, those with complicated medical and social histories, and those with histories of mental health diagnoses—seek advice on how best to cope with the stressors of motherhood. Fortunately, knowledge, preparation, and various interventions and support systems can be incredibly helpful in establishing healthy relationships between moms and babies.
Here are some tips I have found to be helpful in counseling my moms. Please keep in mind that while these are great suggestions for optimizing mental health and easing the transition into motherhood, if you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, call 911 or go to your local emergency room immediately.
By Aparna Iyer, M.D.