Yes, I say it all the time: "My brain is not the same!" Most days, I mean that because I cannot figure out for the life of me where I put my keys or I wonder how someone who went through therapy for OCD is mortified at the thought of someone peeking into my pantry right now. Other times, I think about how my brain is different in relationship to what it tells my body to do--make the hair, shine the hair, keep the hair...you get my drift.
And as much as we some times joke about 'Mom Brain,' science says it's a real thing and that our bodies definitely change after pregnancy and birth.
Related: Mamaverse: The Secret Life of Moms
Mom Brain: Gray Matter Changes
Yes, that's right - our brain's gray matter changes. The gray matter of our brain is what is most important in muscle control and sensory perception. Sensory perception makes a difference in what we see, hear, remember, feel, say, control and decide. So, yes, it's pretty important. Research suggests that new mothers actually lose gray matter for at least two years after giving birth. Most specifically, it's around the areas that are involved with social cognition--and in the area that is most committed to theory of mind. Theory of mind is what we utilize when we try to figure out what is going on in someone else's mind and this is linked to attachment to our babies (and other humans in general--compassion seems to change sometimes). In fact, some researchers speculate that this loss of gray matter in the centralized location they studied is what gives us the best ability to bond with and tend to the needs of our children--gray matter loss has not been found like this in people who are not parents or in fathers--and proves that sometimes losing is winning!
Additionally, all those hormones you had built up to create and carry your baby completely change the way your brain acts too. Similarly to puberty (in a much better way!) the flood of hormones in areas that control anxiety, empathy and social interaction changes the way you bond with your baby and interact with others as well. That unbelievable feeling of love and awe you feel every time you get to change a diaper? Yep, because your brain has been touched by hormones that tell it you love every.thing.about.your.new.little.one.
Mom Brain: Your Neuroendocrine System Changes (and could lead to postpartum depression)
So often mamas give birth and expect that it's all rainbows and unicorns shooting glitter out of their horns. And, for some, it may be. But for one in five new mamas, it's like a lightning bolt of fatigue, anxiety, lethargy and concern that you're not 'doing it right,' hits and can lead to postpartum depression. Researchers believe that there is a connection to changes in your neuroendocrine system. The neuroendocrine system is basically your nervous and endocrine systems working together and regulating your body--everything from eating and drinking, blood pressure, energy and more. Pregnancy and birth affect this system and can affect everything from being more (or less) hungry/thirsty, tired, anxious, etc. than you normally would be. And for one in five, it can be even more depressing, in that it may be a factor in postpartum depression.
Mom Brain: Protection Level High
Yale researchers looked at the brains of new parents with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see what happened in the brain when mamas heard their babies cry. The scientists found that when babies cried, there was observed activity in the neural areas of the brain that are most closely associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They also observed activity in areas of the brain most often associated with empathy. They concluded that hearing one's baby cry triggers neural networks in the brain that bring on anxious and empathetic responses. But they found it interesting that the networks associated with OCD were triggered in that it seems concern about baby's health and well-being were triggered by the baby's cry and even existence. Researchers believe this is evolutionary in occurrence, in that we have evolved to be on high alert for signs of distress or danger from our children in order to protect them. So, when you are stressing over the fact that you check your baby 104 times an hour to see if she's breathing, it's because your mom brain is highly evolved and at work!
Related: Understanding Postpartum Depression and Anxiety: What I Wish I'd Known as a New Mom
Mom Brain: Social Cognition Grows
When baby is born, you get some big old doses of oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the 'feel good' hormone. It plays a crucial role in social bonding and some research suggests that not only does it help you bond with your new little one, but with the world. After birth, oxytocin flows abundantly every time you touch, smell or even look at your little love, and research suggests this makes you more aware of your social surroundings. All of a sudden, watching commercials about those less fortunate move you to action whereas before, they maybe were just 'sad.' You find yourself looking at situations of injustice regarding children in different lights than you may have before, and you find yourself willing to put yourself out on a limb not just for your child but other children too. You can thank oxytocin (among other things) for this new outlook.
Mom Brain: Don't Mess With Mama Bear
Mama Bear is real. When a woman gives birth, there are many areas of the brain that go into mothering behaviors. Researchers particularly study the amygdala often because that's where much of our processing of emotions like fear, aggression, anxiety and memory occur. For weeks and even months after you give birth, your amygdala activity grows. You are on hyperalert for what your baby needs and wants, but also for what could bring them harm or danger. Your goal in life is pretty much to tend to that baby, and nobody and nothing better get in your way. Again, researchers believe this evolutionary practice of brain change is what helps mamas protect babies (and children) and turns on markers in mamas that did not exist before their children were born.
There is no lack of research for the many ways the brain changes after one gives birth, so the next time you hear yourself saying you have "Mom brain," pat yourself on the back because you do--and it makes you a fantastic mama!
Photo: In The Light Photography/Shutterstock