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How does pregnancy and motherhood change the brain dramatically?


In the fall of 2022, Pew Research Institute asked mothers in the US about their parenting and motherhood experiences. One highlight was that 8 out of 10 mothers say that being a mother is the most or one of the most defining aspects of their identity, while about 2 out of 10 say it is their most important trait.

Motherhood brings with it changes in a mother’s life- physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and socially. In terms of the biological changes, researchers and scientists have always been curious how a mother’s brain changes. That is why in the past decade, studies relating to brain images have supported this idea. Changes in a mother’s brain are drastic and lasting! 

Factors that affect brain changes 

  1. Hormonal fluctuations - before birth of child, during childbirth, after birth of child
  2. Interactions with the child

Areas of activity that are influenced by changes in the brain

  1. Start of maternal care
  2. Maintenance of maternal activities
  3. Adjustment of maternal activities as time passes

How does mother-child interaction affect the mother’s brain? 

Studies with the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) show that when the child cries, coos, and interacts with the mother, stimuli is sent to the brain and it activates the part of the brain that is related to reward and social processing.

Researchers found that mothers in the study experienced feelings of pleasure as they interpreted and responded to their infant’s signals. 

This ties in well with the 2023 Pew research result that shows 83% of mothers saying that motherhood is a rewarding experience most or all the time.

Other studies have also shown that the part of the brain that primarily is involved in memory processing and primal emotions called the amygdala undergoes significant growth! This part of the brain is affected by hormones released during pregnancy and even after giving birth. The hormone oxytocin, released during these times, promotes mother-infant bond and creates a reward system for mothers to continue doing bonding activities. Amazing!  

How does motherhood affect brain size? 

Another area of the brain that shows drastic change is the area behind the forehead, along the top of the head. This is called the prefrontal cortex. It has several functions, but the prominent one is controlling our executive functioning, meaning the activities that are involved in planning, giving attention and multitasking. 

No wonder moms suddenly become superheroes! Research has shown that there is growth in the prefrontal cortex. Truthfully, mothers take on several more tasks especially after childbirth. And this requires a higher level of functioning. 

In the same recent Pew research, 65% of mothers surveyed perceived that they do more things related to child-rearing than their partners. 

To cope up with these demands, mothers have to have the ability to change and adapt. 

How long do the changes last? 

Research has established that within 2 years after childbirth, the mother’s brain continues to develop in order to provide critical childcare and promote the best possible development in their children. This period is commonly called “the first thousand days of life.” 

Recently, researchers checked mothers’ brains 6 years after childbirth and they found that some of the changes that happened 2 years after childbirth continued, especially in the areas related to mother-infant attachment! This led researchers to conclude that some brain changes may be permanent.

If you ask mothers around you about the topic of motherhood and the changes it has brought to them, I bet the joke about “the mommy brain” would come up. It usually means that moms become forgetful or maybe prone to being moody. 

But it turns out “the mommy brain” according to science is not so bad after all! 

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How does pregnancy and motherhood change the brain dramatically?
Brandon Resasco