Sarah Walker once said that becoming a mother is like discovering the existence of a new room in the house you have always lived in. This description seems precise; after all, motherhood unveils neural pathways in your brain that you haven’t yet discovered.
So, what are these brain changes and why haven’t you discovered them?
These changes mold a mom’s brain in unexpected ways, and shift the ways she thinks and her outlook on the world around her. Scientists are now pointing to changes occurring in the brain, especially in areas involved in emotional regulation, empathy, and social interaction. These are largely neurological changes that mothers experience during pregnancy and postpartum, accompanied by a flood of hormones that help strengthen the bond between a new mother and her baby, creating a powerful attraction. Overwhelming love, strong protectiveness, and constant concern all begin with biochemical reactions in the brain.
When a baby is born, smell is a strong social cue for mom. This smell is the glue that binds a mother and her baby, and moms instantly become experts at identifying their babies through their distinctive smell. This heightened sense of smell is caused by the hormone release at the end of pregnancy that causes changes in the olfactory bulb in the brain (the brain’s main odor processing center). The amygdala processes the reactions to the smells and makes this odor highly attractive to the mother, further strengthening the bond between a mom and her newborn child. The more bonding, the more attracted the mother becomes to this smell and the relationship grows more powerful.
How do mom’s juggle with all these new challenges? Moms need to be a step ahead, they need to be attentive, make quick decisions, and put their child’s needs prior to theirs. These tasks are the job of the brain’s prefrontal cortex; mom can tackle these challenges if this forward part of her brain is up for it. The bright side of the human brain is its ability to adapt to these new challenges. The decision-making connections are being strengthened through their constant use and moms become more efficient at paying attention to things that matter, and leaving out what is safe to ignore.
The most basic and most notorious benefit of motherhood is how babies make mothers feel euphoric. Dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical, is released every time a mom smells her baby or gazes into his or her eyes. This powerful pleasure response overcomes any other experience! The mother’s main pleasure center in the brain lights up, influencing the way a mother speaks to her baby and how attentive and affectionate she is. Maternal oxytocin levels (responsible for maternal-infant bonding) also surge during pregnancy and after birth. This increase also occurs when a mother is breastfeeding, which explains why moms who breastfeed seem to be more sensitive to the sound of their baby’s cries.
Motherhood can be stressful and moms claim to experience drastic mood swings after pregnancy due to the brain’s hormonal withdrawal. However, mothers will notice that later on, motherhood actually calms the nerves -especially when combined with nursing. Interestingly, nursing reduces activity in the brain related to stress. This is evolutionary advantageous because a nursing baby would not benefit from the combination of breast milk and mom’s stress hormones. This reduction of stress-related activity in the brain helps moms prioritize everyday tasks and gives them more courage and motivation!
So, what does this new brain look like? According to Feldman, “scientists are beginning to realize that becoming a parent looks –at least in the brain– a lot like falling in love. During the first months of ‘falling in love’ some similar changes occur between romantic partners”.
It seems that a mother’s brain has evolved for this behavior. Thus, our brains contain a blueprint for motherhood that exists prior to having children, awaiting to be discovered. Sarah Walker’s description seems accurate; motherhood is in fact an unknown space in a known environment. It is not until you live this experience that you come to realize that your brain has created pathways or “undiscovered rooms” in your brain that adapt to the roles you must play by being a mother.
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According to Feldman, “scientists are beginning to realize that becoming a parent looks – at least in the brain – a lot like falling in love. During the first months of ‘falling in love’ some similar changes occur between romantic partners”.