Most women who have had children are fully aware of the emotional and hormonal changes that they experience. While mothers know what it feels like to experience these changes, most of us don’t know what happens to a woman’s brain when she becomes a mother. Science is only just starting to understand how these changes occur in human mothers’ brains. And it turns out a lot is happening!
What Happens in the Brain After Becoming a Mom
Maternal brain changes are so pronounced that machine learning algorithms can determine who has had a baby and who hasn’t by examining brain scans.1 Specific areas of the brain are reduced, incur more robust responses, or adapt uniquely during pregnancy and postpartum. All of these changes are meant to reinforce and motivate maternal care behavior.2
Your brain is working hard to help you adapt positively to your new role as a parent and help facilitate the bond between you and your new baby. The changes begin during pregnancy and continue during postpartum. The human brain’s ability to adapt and change to specific life experiences is called neural plasticity, and it’s what makes us so successful as a species.3 Here are some ways science has uncovered that a woman’s brain changes when she becomes a mother.
Being a mom means being constantly aware of possible threats. Enhanced sensitivity to dangers is seen before your baby is even born, during late pregnancy. Pregnant women respond more strongly to fearful and angry faces, which researchers believe to be an adaptive response that can help protect their babies from threats in their environment.4
In later pregnancy, women are more sensitive to the cues of infants.5 They also develop greater feelings of emotional attachment to their growing babies.6 When a mother is more sensitive to her baby’s cues, she can better meet their needs. Not only does this enhance the mother-infant bond, but it also helps secure the healthy future of the baby.
These sensitivity enhancements grow and develop through the beginning of the postpartum period. You’ve probably heard stories about mothers who wake with a startle at any minor sound their baby makes during the night. Heightened senses include quick reactions to their babies’ cries and muffled sounds, which bolster infant survival chances. Other increased senses include smell and responses to facial expressions such as smiles.7
As you can imagine, this adds up to what the researchers call “checking and worrying” by the mother. This preoccupation is healthy and part of how a mother’s brain changes in response to her new responsibility of caring for her baby. Fixation on your baby’s every sound and movement peaks typically in the days after childbirth and slowly diminishes over the first three to four months postpartum.
Your brain hosts a neural circuit that controls reward and maternal motivation. The hormone dopamine, which is involved with feelings of reward from things such as food and sex, activates this circuit. Oxytocin, dopamine and other hormone increases cause this circuit to become more sensitive, particularly to your baby’s cues.8
An example is when mothers see their babies smiling and then compare the neural circuit activity to when the same women are shown pictures of smiling babies that are not their own. As you can probably guess, the neural circuit is activated much more when looking at their babies’ pictures. The same phenomenon occurs when mothers listen to clips of their babies crying compared to a stranger’s baby.
This neural circuit is associated with the following:
- Self-monitoring and reflection
- Regulation of negative emotional reactions
- Ability to cope with high levels of stress
- Sensitivity to responding to an infant’s needs
The functional neuroplasticity of a mother’s brain also corresponds to physical changes in the brain.9 The brain’s areas responsible for motivation and reward processing, sensory and social information processing, and emotion regulation increase in volume between the first and third months postpartum.
So if you feel like you have become a whole new person after having a baby, it’s completely normal and for a good reason. Your brain has changed functionally and structurally to adapt to your new role as a parent. It is all just part of the wild ride that is raising children!