What Happens to a Woman’s Brain When She Becomes a Mother

“Don’t mind me. I just have ‘Pregnancy Brain’”. How many times have you heard a woman use this phrase to excuse their hyperemotional behaviors or unusual cravings during pregnancy? Let’s get this out in the open right now. Ladies, there is no shame in feeling. Pregnant, period, or bad day, there is absolutely no shame in having emotions. Allowing emotions to control you is one thing—one negative thing—but experiencing them and letting them inform you is a healthy form of human existence.

Now—after your daily affirmation–let’s get to the crux of what made you click the bait in the first place. “Pregnancy Brain” is actually a thing! It is not a myth or a “state of mind”. It is a genuine physiological alteration that takes place in the female mind when she conceives a child. The human brain is renowned for its plasticity in evolution, but the physiological changes it undergoes do not halt at DNA transfers. Our individual brains are created to morph throughout our entire lives. It does not all stop when we turn 26 and growth in gray matter size suddenly ceases. Even crazier? Gray matter actually shrinks in a new mother at conception! No need for frenzy, though. Studies show pregnancy is not the only time the human mind shrinks. Its first experience in shrinkage occurs during puberty. Not to worry. It is not size that matters, but quality. Right? Right. According to biology, anyway.

When the brain shrinks during puberty, the hormones released rewire the brain’s structure and overall organization system to prime children for adulthood. This is a refined pruning process designed specifically to sculpt the brain for undertaking new challenges. So, it really is a mystery why the brain feels the need to restructure itself for motherhood. I mean, where’s the challenge in growing a human, and keeping said human healthy, happy, and generally alive? Psh. Who needs a more efficient mind?
All of us. Just all of us.

While the overall size of the brain compacts during pregnancy, the postpartum amygdala—the little almond-shaped portion in charge of emotion regulation—expands to produce extra legions of hormones which promote empathy. This hypersensitivity helps the mother to connect with her child. It allows her to bond with the child’s signals so she can better anticipate his or her needs. This expansion also creates stronger memory pathways so the mother will learn faster and more deeply. An enhanced amygdala also regulates the positive feedback loop to promote the growth and reinforcement of mothering behaviors.

This enhanced desire to protect and provide exponentially explains why some women experience increased bouts of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, especially during the first months after their child’s arrival. The symptoms vary from woman to woman but often range from constantly washing hands to fanatically monitoring the baby’s breathing. During these times, women need extra assurance that they are providing well for their child. This will not only ease their worries but create a more relaxed environment for everyone. This behavior promotes a healthier upbringing for the child and an enhanced period of growth for the parents. However, when displayed in a balanced manner, this empathy and overt protective instinct will promote a solid bond between partners and their children.

Not only is heightened empathy a necessary component of successful mothering, but it is literally hardwired into our brains from birth. I’m not talking the birth of your child. I mean you, your birth. Both male and female minds are supported by a socio-cognitive system of neurons which are specifically developed during parenthood. Men typically engage the paternal part of this system in the early years of parenthood. The female mind, however, is naturally predisposed to motherhood–female mothers, who knew, right? MRI scans show that women possess a collection of hormones in their brains which are specifically meant for release at conception, throughout pregnancy, and for up to two years after the birth of each child.

Studies of the female brain throughout the cycle of becoming a new mother are fairly young themselves. The research by Hoekzema and her cohorts suggest that further changes might even take place after the two years they’ve observed. However, a larger sample of women at varying stages in their lives are needed to conduct more thorough research. For now though, the groundbreaking work done observing the female mind throughout pregnancy has answered many questions regarding the parental behavioral differences—and similarities—in men and women. It just needs a little more gestation.