Baby · Postpartum

Your Brain After Your Baby

People will tell you that things will be different after you’ve had a baby, and they are very right. Besides the tiny socks that got lost in your (now giant) purse, and the dried spit up on your pants, your baby changed your brain. That’s right, your brain. But this is a good thing and here’s why:

After centuries of observing behavioral changes in new mothers, scientists are only recently beginning to definitively link the way a woman acts with what’s happening in her prefrontal cortex, midbrain, parietal lobes, and elsewhere. Gray matter becomes more concentrated. Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. On the most basic level, these changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, help attract a new mother to her baby. In other words, those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain.

This article made its rounds a couple years ago but I’m bringing it back into discussion because I love finding information that corresponded to what was happening to me after my babies were born. Finally an explanation for why I kept checking to see if they were breathing! Don’t worry, someone should have told me, this is normal. It’s just your brain changing.

This also points to things in our lives that were once routine before the baby but can cause increased stress for the postpartum mother. For example, many of us like more information, and there are so many ways to access information in these days of websites, social media, digital books, blogs, savvy friends, etc. But an over reliance on information to solve a problem can lead to an underutilized, or lack of faith in our own intuition. (This is why I encourage clients to take my breastfeeding and postpartum classes Before they’ve had the baby, when it’s easier to process the information.) If the postpartum mom is overburdened with stress outside of her mother-baby unit, her newly fired up brain can tip over into detrimental pathways that lead her away from how she intuitively approaches finding solutions.

But that’s a scenario in the home. What about when you go back to work with these brain changes? Your brain has memorized the nuanced cries of your baby, her daily routine of exploration and discovery, and The Hungry Caterpillar but has forgotten all your useful work skills. You have what some people call Mommy Brain, which I find a little insulting because my brain just leveled up, acquiring new skills and priorities, not a downgrade. (Besides, that’s all just an exaggeration. You will not forget all your useful work skills. Everything will even out in time. Except that your brain really did level up.)

It’s not just the birth mom who experiences brain changes. Any parent who spends hours of time with their baby will begin to experience increased activity in specific parts of the brain that lead to “parental behaviors.” Everybody can get a brain upgrade!

Though certainly not the only cause of the problem, research has shown that moms who do not experience as many brain changes may be more at risk for Postpartum Mood Disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive tendencies. I’m going to save this discussion because these disorders deserve their own post, or a series of posts since they are real and a big deal.

So, what are some ways to support this new brain development in your changing life? There’s the usual very important things everyone should do for better physical and mental health like, eating a variety of non-processed real food, drinking enough water, and trying to sleep well (the parent(s) get a pass on this one for a few months, maybe for a few years). There’s also getting some physical activity, and socializing with people that make you feel good. Then for the new parent(s) your changing brain is busy trying to hone your new skills so don’t skip out on practice, spend time with your baby!

“Becoming a parent looks – at least in the brain – a lot like falling in love.”

But I bet you already knew that one. It’s hard to stay away from those big eyes, the funny expressions, the intentional smiles … See? My changing brain just got all mushy and lit up with love.