Pregnancy Brain: Not What You Think

Photo by getty images

Photo by getty images

It is obvious to state that during pregnancy the body goes through many physical and hormonal changes. Yet little is known about how pregnancy affects the brain. There is new research that suggests women’s brain structures changes during and after pregnancy. A first-of-its kind study, looked at brain scans of women before and shortly after pregnancy and found that the volume of grey matter in certain parts of the brain decreased in women who were or had been pregnant—these structural changes were found to last for at least two-years. 

Grey matter contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies, as researchers explain, these regions of the brain are involved with social processes, such as empathy and the ability to understand others. While losing grey matter volume might sound unhealthy, researchers believe that this reduction could be the brain fine-tuning itself, rather than something negative. Instead, the brain may be rewiring itself to optimally cater to the needs of a newborn. Thus, this decrease in the brain’s gray matter may actually help mothers rise to the challenges of motherhood by better understanding the needs of their newborns.  

According to the study, these changes in the brain were remarkably consistent. Computer algorithms could automatically identify women who had been pregnant and women who had not been. The study also looked at mothers who had undergone fertility treatment and mothers who had become pregnant naturally, and the reduction in gray matter were consistent in both groups. What’s more, the amount of grey matter volume reduction was linked to how mothers scored on a post-birth emotional attachment test—women with greater reductions also showed greater attachment to their babies in the postpartum period. Better news yet, researchers did not observe any changes in memory, intelligence or cognitive functioning due to the loss of grey matter.

There is often a significant bonding-attachment between a mother and her infant that starts immediately following the birth of her new baby.  Attachment refers to the special bond that forms between mother (and partner) and a new baby. Attachment plays an important role in helping mothers to meet the needs of their babies. Mothers are often surprised by how quickly they learn to distinguish their infants’ unique cries and needs. The changes in the brain could be an evolutionary response to adapting to the emotional needs of a newborn child.

Being a new mother is hard. You has to adjust to a new role, a new baby and a lot of changes. These findings could be among the first to explain the neurological transition that women go through when they become mothers, and help us to understand the epic transition into motherhood. The brain is able to respond to these changes and make it is easier for us to take care of a new baby. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with motherhood help is available. Reach out to Jamie Kreiter, LCSW by clicking here.