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New mothers experience many changes, including major changes in their brains that make their more in tune with their infants. The reality of brain changes after giving birth gives lie to the old myths of "pregnancy brain" and "new mommy mindset."
The Myth of Mommy Brain
One of the enduring misconceptions about motherhood is that somehow mothers lose their mental acuity when they get pregnant. Referred to as mommy brain, pregnancy brain, and momnesia, mothers to be and mothers of newborns really do occupy a different mental space after they conceive. Their preoccupation with their child may cause women to become forgetful about daily tasks or even a little ditzy about facts and figures. That doesn't mean that women become "dumber" when they become mothers.
The simple fact is, moms, dads, men, women, teens, and children alike have memory lapses when they are busy, stressed, multitasking, or short on sleep. During pregnancy, expectant mothers are all of those things. You aren't cognitively sharp when you have a lot on your brain.
Hormones and the Expectant Mother's Brain
Surging hormone levels also explain psychic changes in motherhood. During pregnancy, an expectant mother's brain marinates in 20 to 40 times the normal amount of both estrogen and progesterone.
Estrogen stimulates the growth of blood vessels in the placenta. It also gives mothers to be that endlessly runny nose or their reddish glow. It makes the breasts, especially the nipples, and the abdomen more sensitive so that mothers are more acutely aware of their unborns and, later, the beginning of lactation.
Progesterone has so many functions in the brain and peripheral nervous system that it is often referred to as a neurosteroid. It both helps the fetal brain wire new connections that make a difference about age nine or ten, it also protects the mother's neurons from infection or injury. Brain tissues metabolize progesterone to the metabolite allopregnanolone, which is known to produce anti-anxiety, calming, and improved memory effects.
Throughout pregnancy, a woman's body increases the number of receptors for the hormone oxytocin. As estrogen levels go up, oxytocin levels go up, too, although not dramatically. Then during labor, the hypothalamus in the brain increases the concentration of oxytocin in the brain itself by about 1000 times. The hormone helps the brain make new connections that bond the mother to her baby, increasing the intensity of her relationship with her child. However, all of these activities make parts of a woman's brain actually shrink.
Paradoxical Changes in a New Mother's Brain Help Her Bond with Her Child
Researcher Elseline Hoekzema at Leiden University in the Netherlands gave brain scans to mothers of newborns and also to fathers of newborns with surprising results. When women give birth, parts of their cerebral cortex that are involved with caring, compassion, and empathy actually shrink. However, neural pathways that are important to taking care of her baby are strengthened. Mothers react to their babies, not necessarily to every baby. They also have intensified feelings for their families, but not necessarily every family.