How pregnancy and childbirth change mama’s brain

ByTiffany ReyesJanuary 11, 2023
Pregnancy brings about many changes. There’s the obvious physical change, which is necessary as the body provides room for the baby to grow. Hormonal changes meanwhile allow growth and adaptation for baby and mama, respectively. But the biggest change happens in the brain, as highlighted by various studies, and which could explain why mama brain or so-called pregnancy fog is very real.
Brain’s physical changes
The brain literally changes – it shrinks during pregnancy and grows bigger postpartum, at least according to studies. Whether healthy or preeclamptic mamas, it was concluded that their brains reduced in size during pregnancy and grew bigger at least 6 months after delivery, according to an article in the American Journal of Neuroradiology.
Another study cites that the maternal brain undergoes temporal changes at different levels, and that pregnancy “changes the maternal brain for at least two years following birth, including enhancement of key hippocampal functions in humans.”
Hormonal changes could explain why mamas become forgetful
Changes in hormone levels surely change how the brain works. According to a study, hormone levels affect women’s specific cognitive abilities during late pregnancy and early postpartum.
These hormonal developments also result in changes in plasma levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, thereby affecting thought processes.
During pregnancy, a woman also has “15 and 40 times more progesterone and estrogen in your system during pregnancy, and these hormones affect all kinds of neurons in your brain.”
But these changes are essential, said another study, as “hormones have essential peripheral actions to maintain pregnancy, and to secure safe delivery at term.”
It’s biology
Some researchers say memory change may be evolutionary. To avoid overload, the pregnancy brain makes mamas forget about other things so they could focus on caring for their offspring.
Dr. Elseline Hoekzema, a senior neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands found in a study that the gray matter in the brains of women who had just given birth “seemed to be reduced in certain areas, and those changes stuck around for up to two years after birth,” reported the New York Times.
These changes may be part of “synaptic pruning,” which cuts certain brain connections to give way to new connections like a mother being more attune to the needs of her infant who still can’t verbalize requests.
Sleep deprivation and stress
Any person who’s sleep-deprived will probably have a brain that will overcompensate. During pregnancy, hormonal changes will affect sleeping patterns and may affect how mamas find rest.
“The physical fatigue that accompanies the first trimester also can include cognitive fatigue, which means your attention and memory can suffer. As pregnancy progresses, there are many things vying for expectant mothers’ attention, which can result in things being overlooked or “forgotten,” according to an article written by OB-gynecologist Robyn Horsager-Boehrer and psychiatrist Laura Lacritz
Postpartum, we know how caring for a newborn means team no sleep, so this could also result in mama’s cognitive changes.
If you need improved sleep, you should get more sunshine during the day to improve your circadian rhythm. Based on a study published by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, workers who had less sunshine exposure “had significantly worse scores” on physical well-being and vitality. And let dad take care of the baby for that quick nap!
How to help mama’s brain
If exercise is good for the body, it is great for the brain too. We’re not just talking about physical movements. Write your tasks, verbalize your needs, get help from your partner or parents. Eat on time, sleep whenever you can, and take advantage of the oxytocin your cute baby brings - snuggle up and hug more, for your hormones will help you become a better mama too.
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