Do you find yourself walking into a room and completely forgetting why you’re there? Are you not remembering to do things unless they’re on your “to-do” list? Do you look down at your baby and think, “When was the last time I fed you? Did I just change you? Was it yesterday or the day before that you had a bath?” You’re not losing your mind – you just have mommy mush brain.
While your forgetfulness may seem like a liability, the changes your brain undergoes when you have a baby are amazing adaptations to becoming a mother, and may be necessary for time investment and caretaking behaviors toward your baby.
Your emotions are all over the place.
Your hormones change during pregnancy, and experience a huge shift again at birth and throughout the postpartum period. Oxytocin is the main hormone; and, the more involved you are in caring for your baby, the higher the levels. Other hormones, like prolactin, adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and estrogen are also active in mom’s body. This hormone cocktail is what causes you to cry at sappy commercials or simply when thinking about your baby in the days after birth.
Your brain grows.
Amazingly, your brain actually increases in volume after your baby is born. The parts of your brain controlling empathy, pleasure, anxiety and sociability increase in activity and size when you have a baby (even during pregnancy). These changes are led by hormones – the same ones that give you the tiger mother protectiveness toward your newborn, the same ones that make you a nervous wreck when you think of all the bad things that could happen, and the same ones that make you love your offspring unconditionally.
Your mothering behavior is fueled by the pleasure centers of the brain.
Oxytocin, the hormone of love, surges at birth, and is present throughout breastfeeding. It’s the hormone released when you hold someone’s hand, stroke your baby’s skin, cuddle your baby close, share a meal with a friend. Oxytocin makes us feel good – and this lights up the parts of the brain associated with pleasure. While you may doubt that waking 10 times a night to settle a baby is pleasurable, the release of oxytocin ensures that you will keep caring for your baby – you are addicted to your baby in a good way.
Some changes are temporary, while others last a lifetime.
The forgetfulness new moms experience seems to be a temporary change – so you can look forward to restored memory capability! But researchers are just starting to determine what changes permanently alter a woman’s brain. They believe it’s likely that your brain never quite returns to the way it was before having a baby – new connections and pathways are established that may change your brain forever (usually in a positive way!). Another strange change that researchers aren’t sure what to make of is that they have found male chromosomes in the brains of moms who have given birth to boys.
Breastfeeding causes changes, too.
A breastfeeding mom and baby are called a dyad for a reason – their interdependence and linked systems work together and both change as a result. The milk-making neurological pathways of your brain are continually reinforced and enlarged each time your baby eats. Again, it’s oxytocin mainly at play. Not only is oxytocin released (ensuring loving maternal behaviors) but new receptors are created, increasing your sensitivity to the hormone. Breastfeeding also lowers the response to stress hormones – which could save the brain from the damaging effects of anxiety over the long-term.
Research about how women’s brains change in pregnancy and motherhood can inform future medical treatments for individual women. Therapies that may work on a never-pregnant woman might not be effective for women who have given birth. In addition, researchers are mapping the way the brain works during mothering to help those who have postpartum mood disorders.
So, next time you lose your phone or misplace the car keys, instead of worrying that you’re going crazy, embrace the changes and know that you’re officially part of the new mom’s club.
Written by Michelle, childbirth instructor, lactation consultant, and mother to 4 busy kids
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a trained medical doctor. Health & Parenting Ltd disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information, which is provided to you on a general information basis only and not as a substitute for personalized medical advice. All contents copyright © Health & Parenting Ltd 2016. All rights reserved.