I saw this interesting article recently on Scientific American’s website called, “Motherhood: Your Brain on Kids” that I thought I’d share. You can watch the video here…

In case you aren’t able, or don’t have time to watch the video, here is the gist of what science is saying about brain changes after giving birth…

Sense of smell

The mother’s sense of smell increases after giving birth. The smell of their child becomes a very strong environmental cue for their bodies. Some studies show that mothers are often able to identify their own infant from others just by smell alone. Our physiology changes during pregnancy, increasing the sensitivity of the olfactory bulb (brain region responsible for smell) and the amygdala (the brain region associated with emotion). When both of these brain regions are simultaneously activated by the child, it pairs a positive emotional response with the smell of your child. In essence, your child’s smell makes you happy. This helps secure the attachment bond between the child and the mother.

Feeling Moody?

When many people think of pregnant women, they sometimes think MOODY! Women are known for having mood swings shortly after giving birth. Some researchers believe this is because so many hormones are increased during pregnancy, that then immediately decrease after giving birth because they are not needed. This can cause a withdrawal from some of those “feel good” hormones. Researchers like Brunton & Russell (2008) believe this withdrawal is part of what leads to postpartum depression in women after birth. However, the author of the Scientific American article and Bruton & Russell both state that nursing can help mitigate the effects of this withdrawal and allows the mother to feel more “level headed”. They state that nursing decreases the stress effects that result from the HPA axis (which controls your stress feedback). It can lead to feelings of calmness and decrease the effects of “moodiness”. Could this be an evolutionary advantage? When you are stressed, the HPA axis sends stress hormones throughout your body (including your breast milk), which could influence the hormone levels in your child if they were to consume this breast milk. This calming effect breast feeding has on the HPA axis allows a more “relaxed” response to every day stressors, which some think occurs so that the child will not consume these stress hormones.

Feeling Courageous?

Studies of the effects breastfeeding show that this same reduction of activity in the HPA Axis (stress response system) also increase the boldness of the mother. They more likely to take risks and explore new things. Mothers compared childless women are more likely to take risks.

Better Attention Management

Mothers have to be able to quickly switch between different mental tasks, and be attentive. You never know what your child is going to stick in their mouth next! This requires the use of her “prefrontal cortex”. The prefrontal cortex is the “executive decision maker” of the brain that allows you to better reason and pay attention (which, by the way, doesn’t fully form until your early to mid-twenties… ever wonder why car insurance drops when you hit 25? This is also why those pesky teenagers don’t pay attention very well!). Over time, because the mother’s environment requires so much of her executive decision making, it increases the brain pathways in the prefrontal cortex, allowing her to become even better at quickly shifting her attention where it needs to go. It also over time teaches the mother what she needs to pay attention to, and what does not require her full attention.

Babies make moms feel good!

A study done on rats found that dopamine (the feel good neurotransmitter) was released in mother rats brains when ever they saw or smelled their offspring. Dopamine is released whenever we do anything that is pleasurable to us, such as eat, spend time with loved ones, even during sex. The dopamine response in these mother rats when they saw their offspring was so strong, that it surpassed the effects of our brains when we receive food when hungry. Brain scans also show that when a mother looks at her child, there is a burst of activity in the nucleus accumbens (another part of the brain associated with feeling pleasure). This, again, helps secure the attachment bond between the child and the mother.

In sum, yes, the physiology of the mother definitely changes not only during, but after giving birth. And it appears to change for the better so that the mother can be as equipped as possible to provide good parenting.

Mothers, what changes have you noticed after giving birth? Does this sound like what you experienced after giving birth? Also, if you are pregnant and haven given birth yet, what are your thoughts on knowing that your brain changes even after your child is born?

Works Cited Above

Brunton, P., & Russell, J.. (2008). The expectant brain: adapting for motherhood. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 9(1), 11-25.  Retrieved August 7, 2011, from ProQuest Psychology Journals

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

Your Brain on Kids
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