An insight into how a woman's brain starts to change after pregnancy
Theme: Health Issues and Disease
I remember my mom running around crazily, looking for me when I wasn’t around (probably because I was busy playing hide-and-seek!). The instant she heard me sneezing, she’d clean the house to the point where you’d see your reflection on the floor. And God forbid I’d have a cold or a fever; she’d be up all night. Well, I guess being the firstborn has its perks. From what I have heard from my aunts’, she’d be obsessing over me so much that she would misplace things all the time. But what often came across as a surprise to me was how my mom would know what I wanted before I even asked for it. Mothers are strange. Somehow, they know everything. As creepy as that may sound, it isn’t paranoia. It’s something we identify as the “Mommy Brain.”
After childbirth, a mother’s brain undergoes a series of vast changes. Studies previously done on animals implied the occurrence of certain structural changes to the maternal brain during postpartum periods. In order to explore these changes in human brains, the National Institute of Mental Health conducted a study on 19 women who gave birth at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Their brains were studied from two to four weeks of postpartum to three to four months of postpartum, through MRI scans. Quite unusually, they noticed an increase in the volume of the grey matter of the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes and midbrain when the mothers were looking at pictures of their babies. The adult brain rarely ever grows unless there has been significant learning, brain injury or major environmental changes.
Left side: The normal brain Right side: The maternal brain after giving birth
The red colour highlights increase in the volume of grey matter in specific parts of the brain that are activated to support the infant’s wellbeing
According to Pilyoung Kim, PhD, the hormonal changes during pregnancy make the mother’s brain predisposed to reshaping, in response to the baby. The affected areas contribute to increased maternal motivation, an attempt to help the mother understand her child’s needs. When this happens, increased activity in the substantia nigra and amygdala allows a mother to process emotions, while the changes in the parietal lobe help with sensory integration and the prefrontal cortex allow reasoning and judgement. As the research progressed, the researchers saw that mothers who were very enthusiastic and rated their babies as special, beautiful, ideal and perfect were significantly more likely to develop larger midbrains than the mothers who were not.
Researchers believe these changes are for the betterment of the mother and child, because it is the foundation of the bond between them. Whilst making her more responsive towards her child, it helps the mother understand the tiny details about her child that nobody else would notice, including the father. As the “mommy brain” remains for two years, it gives the mother ample time to understand her child. The bond that she is able to harbour then becomes ever-lasting, and I must say, I still see that side to my mom. Due to multiple allergic reactions occurring at the same time, I fell unconscious three years ago and was hospitalized. A lot of my relatives were present, but nobody other than the doctor and my mother were able to understand why I had lost consciousness in the first place.
The brain begins to transform slowly after the start of pregnancy. Neural activities are increased in the substantia nigra and amygdala, and nerve connections in the breast area strengthen to prepare the body for breastfeeding - it is truly amazing how these actions take place long before the birth of the baby. Despite the glorious side of it, these changes can also be detrimental as they hold the potential to make the mother overly sensitive and emotional, especially when thinking about the child. You may ask if some parts of the brain grow in volume, do other parts shrink? That is absolutely correct - the human body has the capacity to hold only a certain amount of brain matter. The parts of the brain that are rarely ever required in motherhood do indeed shrink a bit in size during the “mommy brain” period, as the body learns to prioritise tasks, with the most important task being the baby. Hence, everything else becomes less significant and the mother feels no need to use the hippocampus; her short term memory weakens, which may be the reason why she might be forgetting to turn off the gas at times! However, that might not be a bad thing. Leiden University neuroscientist, Elseline Hoekzema, says that the shrinkage makes the brain more specialised and efficient after the “mommy brain” period as unnecessary neuronal connections are eliminated.
It is crucial to note that the findings from this research have been done on small sample size. Hence, we cannot use this knowledge to treat every mother as pregnancy affects every woman differently. But what we can do, is appreciate the fact that a fetus affects a mother as much as the mother affects the fetus. Oftentimes, people are only bothered about the baby. When my mom was pregnant with my little sister, I would see relatives coming over every now and then and ask about the little one, rather than trying to know how my mom was doing - used to be a typical scene in Asian households, but thankfully, it is now changing. We rarely ever know what changes a mother is actually going through during pregnancy unless we experience it ourselves. A massive responsibility is added to the many more responsibilities she already has, which can be overwhelming because an infant’s life now depends on her. The least we can do as family members, partners, or children, is to let the mother know that it is perfectly fine to feel so overwhelmed, and divide the responsibilities so she can focus on enhancing the bond with her child.
Postpartum periods: The time following childbirth
Prefrontal cortex: A region of the brain involved in cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making and regulating social behaviour
Parietal lobes: The back of the brain which processes sensory information regarding the locations of body parts, interprets visual information, processes language and mathematics
Midbrain: A small central part of the brainstream
Substantia nigra: A structure within the midbrain responsible for bodily movements
Amygdala: Grey matter inside the cerebral hemispheres that experience emotions
Hippocampus: A part of the brain that is concerned with major learning and memory
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