By Hana Frenette
Expectant mothers experience a myriad of bodily changes during pregnancy, from growing bellies and morning sickness to swollen ankles or hormone surges.
A Spanish study published by Nature Neuroscience in 2016 shed light on another area where big changes occur during pregnancy—a woman’s brain.
Changes in the Brain During and After Pregnancy
A research team from Barcelona performed brain scans on first-time mothers before and after pregnancy and found gray matter reductions in brain regions associated with social cognition and emotions. The same regions of the brain were also activated when women looked at photos of their infants after they’d been born.
These changes in gray matter loss were still present and observable two years after the women gave birth.
The study concluded that these brain changes help prepare new moms for the emotional and physical challenges of motherhood.
What Do These Changes Mean for Mothers
While a temporary loss of gray matter in the brain sounds troubling, the report shows that women with greater gray matter loss felt a deeper, stronger emotional attachment to their newborns.
The study also noted that while an area of the brain does “shrink” during pregnancy, the same area actually becomes stronger and more efficient.
This big brain change helps new moms feel fewer negative emotions while learning their newborns’ new language of noises, and also helps them react faster to perceived threats so they can act quickly to protect themselves and their babies.
Transitioning from the Pregnant Brain to the Baby Brain, How to Cope
“Momnesia” and “Baby Brain” are terms people have used to describe the forgetfulness or absentmindedness new moms sometimes experience.
While these terms are often mentioned in jest, the distracted feelings a new mom is experiencing are real, but not because of changes in their brain.
Several studies have found that the more drastic changes happening in the brain don’t extend far into parenthood and that new moms are simply adjusting to an entirely new way of life. A new schedule, a new set of worries and joys, new chores—the list goes on.
Research suggests plenty of sleep, well-rounded nutrition and moderate exercise can help a new mom regain concentration and focus while she adjusts to parenthood.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information
- Clinical Knowledge Network
- UT Southwestern Medical Center
- Association for Physiological Science
- Dr. Sarah McKay
- Mayo Clinic