YO MAMA: How your brain changes after you have a baby
I’m sitting in my office, working on this week’s column, but I’m also watching the baby monitor out of the corner of my eye.
The kid just started squirming around. Is he too hot? I wonder. Did he have a bad dream? After a few moments, he settles and I go back to my writing. Sort of. I go through my journal trying to find something worth writing about, meanwhile half of my brain is making a mental to do list: buy more sunscreen, book the playgroup, cook something with vegetables.
Mostly, I am still wondering if the pajamas I dressed him in are too heavy. Maybe I should sneak in and crack a window? It isn’t just writer’s block, it’s how my brain operates these days.
For the past 18 months, no matter where I am or what I am doing, the baby is almost always on my mind.
I often feel distracted, my thoughts drifting away from adult conversations and turning instead to concern for my little one: is that toy age-appropriate for him? Does he need a snack? It’s sometimes hard to concentrate on a book or the evening news, things that used to fully capture my interest.
It feels as if my brain has been hardwired to prioritize the baby, leaving me powerless to override the ongoing inner monologue.
As it turns out, my brain has changed in some really significant ways. And I’m not talking about what people call “baby brain.”
A woman’s brain undergoes major neurological restructuring during pregnancy and motherhood, and those changes last for about two years!
I am by no means an expert in human biology, but lately I’ve been reading up about this amazing facet of motherhood and it’s helped me to appreciate and embrace these new, sometimes annoying, sometimes weird, and sometimes marvellous renovations to my brain.
Studies involving brain scans of pregnant women and mothers illustrate the changes pretty clearly.
First off, the parts of your brain that control empathy, anxiety and social interaction light up during pregnancy and the postpartum period.
It’s like a light being switched on: suddenly, you possess this string of powerful emotions designed to help you bond with your baby and ensure they survive. You know the ones: fierce protectiveness, unconditional love, constant worry.
In particular, the part of your brain called the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for driving the fight or flight response) goes into hyperdrive. An ultra-sensitive amygdala contributes to all those “mama bear” type qualities or what scientists call “maternal motivation.” Your primary focus is the survival of your child. And that means running through a perpetual loop of worries: Is baby gaining enough weight? Is he developing normally?
This new maternal brain of yours might make you feel like a paranoid, baby-obsessed worry-wart but remember, it’s all just another incredible way that your body is taking care of your little one.
I need to mention here that while stress, anxiety and fear are all very common feelings for a new mother to experience, if they begin to affect your ability to get through the day or to care for your child or yourself, you could be experiencing postpartum depression (PPD). This very common mood disorder affects one in seven women.
During my pregnancy, I focussed a lot on the physical changes happening to my body and never realized how much my brain was changing too.
My “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book had said there would be some pretty crazy postpartum hormones likely to leave me feeling bogged down with the “baby blues” but it was surprising to read just how much my brain would change, and for how long.
In one study I read, I was alarmed to read that the brains of new mothers actually shrunk. Specifically, they saw a reduction in gray matter, which plays a role in high-level thinking tasks like decision-making and forming memories.
That didn’t sound great to me, but the theory behind this phenomenon is actually quite beautiful: that it has to do with “synaptic pruning” of old connections between brain cells to allow for the creation of new ones. In other words, it could help a person adjust to a major life change like becoming a first time mom. I like to think it’s similar to giving an old fruit tree a really good pruning in the fall and watching it thrive in the springtime.
There’s also evidence to suggest that a woman’s brain has the most “plasticity” (the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization) during pregnancy and the postpartum period than at any other time of her life, including puberty.
The phrase “everything changes” is often used to describe life after having a child, and the simple saying couldn’t be more true.
Will my brain ever fully go back to "normal?" Based on my reading and my personal experience as a new mother, I would say: how can it?
While that hyper-sensitive maternal instinct may fade over time, new neural pathways and connections have been built in my brain, changing it forever.
When I get frustrated with my “mom brain” I try to remind myself of all the new skills it has acquired and how its transformation has allowed me to take on this incredible new role of mother.
— Charlotte Helston gave birth to her first child, a rambunctious little boy, in the spring of 2021. Yo Mama is her weekly reflection on the wild, exhilarating, beautiful, messy, awe-inspiring journey of parenthood.
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