When women become moms, as any woman who's become a mom will tell you, everything changes. Your whole life changes when you have kids, whether you're ready for it (or think you are) or not. You'll probably, at least for awhile, spend a lot less time taking care of yourself and a lot more time, you know, trying to keep this brand-new tiny human alive. As it turns out, some of the major changes (and they are major) associated with postpartum life have to do with the fascinating changes that happen in women's brains after they have a kid. Between surging and falling hormones, actual anatomical brain changes, exhaustion, and more, women who've given birth to babies undergo a lot of changes that can linger long after their little one has grown up.
A lot of moms (and soon-to-be moms) associate postpartum life with something that's colloquially referred to as "mom brain," "mommy brain," "momnesia," and the like. The brain fogginess, memory lapses, exhaustion, and more, leading to things like misplaced cellphones and arriving at the wrong places at the wrong times, have a lot to do with the sleep deprivation new moms face, but they might also have a little bit to do with what's going on in your body, as well. Whether you're already a mom or are hoping to be one someday, you just might want to know how your brain might change once you give birth.
1. They Have More Empathy
The idea that many moms tend to be extra empathetic might actually be rooted in science. The Atlantic reported that scientists have discovered that moms' brains have more neurological activity in the parts of the brain that deal with empathy. It's a trait that many people associate with motherhood anyway, but it's due to an actual brain change.
2. Parts Of Their Brain Shrink
Interestingly enough, some parts of women's brains actually might shrink after they become moms. Wired reported that scientists have known for awhile that women's brains get smaller during pregnancy, but that a 2017 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that changes in the amount of gray matter present in a woman's brain postpartum can last for at least two years.
3. They Have More Anxiety
In the previously-mentioned article from The Atlantic, the magazine reported that moms also have more brain activity in the parts of their brain that deal with anxiety. Moms have to keep their little ones (especially the littlest little ones) safe and protected, and that increased activity in the parts of the brain that deal with anxiety can help them do that.
4. They Might Have Some Memory Issues
As most new moms know, right after you have a baby can be a blur of brain fog, exhaustion, confusion, and memory lapses. In an interview with Fit Pregnancy, Shannon Seip, the co-author of Momnesia, said that between sleep deprivation, hormones, and all of the new information that you need to know in order to make sure your baby is taken care of, it can be difficult to remember some of the things that used to be second-nature to you. Some of these memory issues can potentially let up once your farther-removed from pregnancy, but for some women they stick around for awhile.
5. They Get More Protective
Moms' protective instincts, too, can seem to kick in after giving birth. The aforementioned article from The Atlantic noted that need to protect their little one comes from a brain change, just like the uptick in activity in the part of the brain concerning anxiety.
6. They Have Better Facial Recognition
Moms are good at recognizing their baby's face, even if other people struggle to do so. This skill isn't an accident, but actually a result of brain changes. STAT reported that the previously-mentioned study published in Nature Neuroscience also found that activity increases in the parts of moms' brains that respond to their baby's face, whether it's a photo or seeing them in person.
7. They're Better At Forming Close Relationships
In an interview discussing her research with WebMD, researcher Dr. Pilyoung Kim, Ph.D. said that moms' brains change to help them form a close, secure relationship with their baby. Before you're a mom, the ability to form a bond like that one might not always be quite as vital as once you have a baby.
8. Rising Cortisol Makes It Hard To Think Clearly
Cortisol is a stress hormone and, unsurprisingly, it can play a big role in new parenthood. In an interview with HuffPost Canada Jens Pruessner, the director of the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, said that while an uptick in cortisol can help new parents, it can also interfere with your ability to think clearly. Brain fog isn't uncommon and cortisol might sometimes be part of the issue.
9. Other Parts Of Their Brains Might Grow
So while gray matter in some parts of your brain might shrink, in other parts, it could actually grow. Kim told WebMD in the aforementioned article that she found that the parts of the brain that allow moms connect well with and take care of their babies can grow in order to accommodate that new need.
10. They Might Have More Obsessive Behaviors
Anxiety and obsessive compulsive behaviors can both go up after you become a mom. In an interview with The Atlantic for the aforementioned article, Kim said that it's not uncommon for new moms to say that they're experiencing thought patterns they can't control, thinking and worrying about their new baby. Scientists think that these changes can have to do with changes in the brain after becoming a mom as well, and if you're experiencing them, you're not alone, but you might want to share that with your doctor.
11. They Might Be Able To Handle Stress More Effectively
In the aforementioned article from HuffPost Canada, Pruessner said that the flip side of the effect of all that cortisol is that it can give new moms the energy that they need to work through stresses and respond to obstacles or other "threats." You'll likely need the energy needed to deal with stress when you're just starting out with the whole parenting thing.
12. Neurons Make Them Attentive To Their Kids
There's a reason why many new moms focus so closely on their babies. The Orange County Register reported that research conducted by Dr. Michael Numan, Ph.D., formerly of Boston College, found that neurons in the medial preoptic area of a new mom's hypothalamus make her more attentive to her baby and motivate her to care for them. It's because of what happens in her brain.
13. They Can Pick Out Their Baby's Cry Or Figure Out What They Need
The mothering instincts that tell a mom when it's her baby that's crying or help her figure out just what they need without them being able to speak come from some of the changes that take place in the brain, as the previously-mentioned study from Nature Neuroscience found. These changes are (at least partially) thought to help moms better care for their little ones, allowing them to intuit what they need and helping them to keep them safe and protected.
14. They Fall In Love With Their Little Ones
Additionally, as the formerly-mentioned article from The Atlantic reported, the way that your brain looks when you become a parent can closely resemble the way that your brain looks when you fall in love. The same parts of your brain experience greater or different activity in both situations. How cool is that?
15. They Might Have Affected Neuroplasticity Long-Term
Ultimately, motherhood could potentially affect the way your brain reacts to different things for many years to come. CBS News reported that research presented at the 9th Annual Canadian Neuroscience Meeting in 2015 found that rats who'd been mothers responded differently to estrone, which is often used in hormone replacement therapy, than those who hadn't been. There is certainly more research needed, but it could mean that moms and non-moms don't respond to these hormones in the same way, even years after they'd had babies.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.