New moms have a lot to cope with. You need to recover from a grueling and exhausting physical task — it’s called “labor” for a reason! — as well as all the physical toll that pregnancy took on your body.
You have to learn how to care for your new baby, often without having had any experience at all, and you still need to take care of yourself, too.
It’s no wonder that many moms feel like they’ve been brain-and-body swapped during those first few months of motherhood.
For centuries, new mothers were stigmatized for being hysterical, overreacting, or unable to cope. Even now, we still hear people talking about “mommy brain” and dismissing new moms as incapable.
But recent research has changed things. As more women reach higher levels in the scientific community, they’re pushing to study areas of neurology that used to be overlooked as not relevant or significant (because they only concerned women, of course!) and discovering amazing things about what truly happens to a woman’s brain when she becomes a mom.
Jodi Pawluski, a neurobiology researcher at the University of Rennes 1 in France, in one of those women. She focuses on what she calls “the neglected neurobiology of the maternal brain.” Pawluski firmly believes that the impact of new motherhood on women’s brains needs to be studied more, saying “It’s one of the most significant biological events, I would say, you would have in your life.”
We agree with her 100%, so here are some of the more recent findings about what happens to your brain when you become a mom.
You’re going to be astonished.
Your Brain Grows
Researchers found that when women give birth, the gray matter in our brains actually changes. Certain areas of the brain suddenly grow and develop more gray matter, and studies show that that change is with you for life.
The areas of the brain that are used for social processes and understanding other people’s emotions and mental states are the ones that grow the most. This makes sense, because these are the skills you need to be able to work out what your baby — and later, toddler and child — needs even when they can’t express it for themselves.
Scientists found the biggest changes in the area called the amygdala, which lies near the base of the brain and helps process memory and regulate emotions like fear, anxiety, and aggression. The amygdala grows during the weeks and months after giving birth, which is why so many new mothers feel unreasonably anxious about their babies and hyper-alert to any possible threat.
If you’ve ever obsessively checked on your sleeping baby to see if he/she is still breathing (and really, who hasn’t?), then you have your amygdala to thank for it.
Hormones Flood In
We blame our hormones for a lot, especially new moms, but your hormones are awesome. After giving birth, you get a flood of hormones which make you better able to multitask. This probably developed so that new moms would always be aware of their baby’s safety.
It’s a good thing, but it is also partly responsible for postpartum depression, because the same hormones can make you anxious, suspicious, and paranoid that your baby could be in danger.
Scientists found that the hormone oxytocin rises in new moms. Oxytocin strengthens the mother-baby bond and makes you more responsive to your baby’s coos and cries. Breastfeeding pushes oxytocin levels even higher.
Another hormone that suddenly skyrockets after you’ve given birth is dopamine. Your dopamine networks are the ones that affect your feelings of pleasure, so whenever you feel happy, it’s because you just got a dopamine hit. In new moms, dopamine levels rise, which is why you get all warm and fuzzy whenever you care for your baby, or look at them, or, particularly, when you smell that newborn smell.
If you feel like you fell in love with your baby, science shows that that’s exactly what happened. The changes to your dopamine networks are similar to those that occur when you fall in love.
There’s Nothing Negative About “Mommy Brain”
Here’s one thing that doesn’t happen: women don’t get dumber after giving birth. Despite years of negativity about “mommy brain,” all this research shows that women’s brains don’t shrink after giving birth, they expand. All that’s happening is that the brain is adapting to its new, stronger functions, and that’s why it always clears up over time.
Science is finally uncovering the truth we knew all along: moms are awesome! If you’re feeling like you’re drowning in the new experiences of becoming a mom, read this and remind yourself that your brain is growing better and stronger, and so are you!