Ever wondered why you had that instant connection with your baby as soon as he or she was born? The truth is that a mother’s brain in fact shrinks during pregnancy, and you will have to survive with this change in gray matter for at least two years, if not for life. Don’t worry though, this is actually good news, if not great news, rather than bad.
I came across a recent and impressive publication by Elseline Hoekzema and colleagues and instantly knew that mothers would be fascinated by what they found. So let me tell you a little bit about why and how they did the study and then share their interesting results. Read on to also find out how the brain of your baby’s father is affected during pregnancy and what this brain altering data actually means to you and me.
A study designed to evaluate brain size during pregnancy
Over 5 years, data were collected from first-time pregnant women and their male partners, which was compared to data from non-pregnant women and men without children. Since there is limited information on actual brain changes during pregnancy, the researchers from this Barcelona clinic performed various brain scans and cognitive tests, before and after pregnancy as well as two years after childbirth, to shed light on this topic.
Reduced gray matter volume proven after pregnancy
Their results showed that pregnancy indeed leads to a reduction in gray matter volume, and therefore a reduction in the overall size of a mother’s brain. The changes were mostly seen in the cerebral cortex, which is associated with supporting social skills or helping mother’s respond to their babies. The extent of brain volume change was directly linked to how attached the mother was to her baby. The change is therefore seen as being part of the adjustment process to becoming a mother. As confirmation of this surprising finding, the authors showed that by looking at the brain changes only, they were able to say without any other information whether a woman was pregnant or not.
Based on the brain scans and cognitive tests performed, the authors concluded that your emotional connection with your baby will be determined by the extent of brain volume change.
Has someone ever commented before on how incredible it is that you can distinguish your baby’s cry from any other baby, or how you know your baby’s needs by simply hearing the sounds he or she makes? This is exactly what the volume changes in your brain allow for during pregnancy. This brain modification is believed to enhance a new mother’s face and emotion recognition.
Remarkably, it made no difference whether mothers conceived naturally or via assisted fertility treatment. The gray matter volume changes were alike in both. Also, it made no difference whether they expected a boy or a girl, or had a single or twin pregnancy. Therefore no matter how you conceived or the gender or number of your babies, you would be blessed with this pregnancy related brain alteration in order to better connect with your baby.
Improved social networking skills
The authors also speculate that your brain further develops the neural network responsible for social interaction. Maybe that’s exactly why there are so many mommy bloggers out there. We all have enhanced social networking skills because of our pregnancy!
I remember when we had our first baby, my husband commented on how amazing it was how she would immediately be calm when in my arms, even after being terribly difficult seconds ago without me. This is just one of the examples and privileges of having your brain altered by pregnancy in order to care for your baby.
So bless this group of experts for posing one of the more interesting scientific questions out there: How does pregnancy affect the brain of my baby’s father?
And the simple answer is that it doesn’t. Of course not … They showed absolutely no changes in the gray matter volume of men following pregnancy of their partners. This further proves that the changes in gray matter volume in females are due to biology and not simply the experience of parenthood. In other words: blame those hormones! There were of course also no brain volume changes for the non-pregnant females over the course of the study.
Lasting brain alteration
Even two years after giving birth, it was shown that the gray matter volume changes were still obvious in most of the cortical regions. The fractional recovery of hippocampal gray matter after two years could explain why we feel partial relief from that scatterbrained feeling experienced mostly during pregnancy and after the birth of your baby. Although memory shortfall in pregnant mothers has previously been described scientifically, it was not confirmed by the researchers in this study – while it was tested, the results were not significantly different from non-pregnant women. Although we as mothers do not need to be reminded of the marshmallow-head-syndrome we all suffer during pregnancy, we can now at least keep our chins up knowing that it is bound to improve in time.
This article validates our maternal feelings by associating them with structural and hormonal brain changes. It allows me to hugely appreciate that pregnancy does not just simply conclude with the gift of a newborn baby, but also provides us with all the essential emotional attributes that afford us the opportunity to become great mothers. Pregnancy physically changes our brains so that we can recognize, truly connect and understand our own babies. It empowers us to be the best mothers we can be. So embrace the changes that pregnancy imposes on your mind and body, knowing that it is your instinctive contribution to a new little life.
Leave a comment and share your best pregnancy-brain incident.
Pregnancy might shrink your brain but it simply means that you will love your baby the most!
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