I always thought it was annoying when people would say, “Your life will change forever after having a baby.” Because duh. There’s a human being I’m responsible for, for the rest of my life. But my thoughts, feelings, and physical responses changed, too. That I wasn’t prepared for. Though I still love my pets just as much as I did before (thank you very much), something clicked in my brain when I got pregnant, and continued to change after my son was born. Because apparently, there are fascinating things happen in your brain when you give birth.
It must be true, because I suddenly don’t hate everyone else’s children... I think they’re cute. I feel an overwhelming sense of duty to protect my son and I feel like my heart will burst when I look at him and he smiles at me. All thanks to the amygdala in the brain. And what happens there is a lot like falling in love with someone. Which, obviously, you do. Your child.
Whether you're having an unmedicated birth or going the epidural route, there are some biological changes that are basically a given after you have a baby. The good news is, your body knows exactly what it's doing, so you can trust that those changes are in your best interest, and your baby's, too.
1. Your Brain’s Structure Is Different
Artist Sarah Walker described becoming a mother as an experience like “discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house where you already live," according to an article in The Atlantic. What an apt and beautiful description of all the nutty things going on in your brain during pregnancy and after you give birth. The discovery of this "new room" happens because starting with pregnancy, the structure of your brain — specifically “the prefrontal cortex, midbrain, parietal lobes” — changes under the influence of those pesky pregnancy hormones.
“Activity increases in regions that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. On the most basic level, these changes, prompted by a flood of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period, help attract a new mother to her baby. In other words, those maternal feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness, and constant worry begin with reactions in the brain,” the article noted.
2. Brain Grey Matter Is Altered
You know pregnancy brain and how you feel like your brain shrinks when you're expecting? Well, it did actually shrink, unfortunately. And after you give birth, the grey matter areas remain shrunken, a Wired article reported. What is grey matter? It's mostly made up of "non-neuron brain cells called glial cells" which provide nutrients and energy to neurons, help transport glucose into the brain, clean the brain of excess chemicals, and some other very important things, according to Live Science.
Additionally, as Scientific American reported, a research team found that after performing brain scans on first-time moms before and after pregnancy, they found "significant grey matter changes in brain regions associated with social cognition and theory of mind" — the same regions that were activated when women looked at photos of their infants.
However, this shrinking? It's not all bad, Wired said. "The running hypothesis is that shrinking might actually be a sign of the brain honing its circuits for mothering. The researchers didn’t see shrinking in dads." Because of course not.
3. Your Response to Emotions, Fear, Anxiety & Aggression Changes
Maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim, who was interviewed for The Atlantic, said there are several regions of the brain that “help drive mothering behaviors and motherhood." Of particular interest is the amygdala, “which helps process memory and drives emotional reactions like fear, anxiety, and aggression."
In a normal brain, activity in the amygdala grows in the weeks and months after giving birth. When this part of your brain is enhanced, it makes you hypersensitive to your baby’s needs and demands. (I think that’s why a lot of moms can’t stand it when their baby starts fussing and they feel drawn to scoop them up immediately.) More receptors in the amygdala create a “positive feedback loop to motivate mothering behaviors," like when your reward centers lights up instantly just by looking at your sweet baby. This influences how you talk to your little one, how attentive you are and how you feel affection toward them, according to the article.
4. Your Brain Is Now On Overdrive All. The. Time.
With your brain on overdrive because of all of these changes to the amygdala, it can cause serious anxiety and depression in some moms, unfortunately. The intensity of this overdrive varies between moms and depends on their personalities and traits they already have. The Atlantic article noted that one in six women suffer from postpartum depression, and even more develop compulsive behaviors like checking to see if their baby is breathing over and over again and compulsively washing hands. “This is what we call an aspect of... the obsessive compulsive behaviors during the very first few months after the baby’s arrival," said Kim.
"Mothers actually report very high levels of patterns of thinking about things that they cannot control. They're constantly thinking about baby. Is baby healthy? Sick? Full?"
This is largely related to obsessive-compulsive behaviors because there’s an enormous desire to take care of your child, and this has been proven in animals and humans alike, Kim told The Atlantic. “A new mother's brain changes help motivate her to care for her baby, but they may also help buffer her own emotional state,” she said.
So some crazy things are firing and happening in that brain of yours, beginning when you’re pregnant. It feels evolutionary, to me, that all of these hormones create these changes so you feel a bond with your child and a fierce connection and need to protect them — typically, right off the bat. Thank god, because when they’re up all night in a sleep regression or when they’re teething, you need that change in mindset to stay calm and carry on. Babies sure are lucky they're so darn cute sometimes.
This first-time mom wants to have a home birth, but is she ready? Watch how a doula supports a military mom who's determined to have a home birth in Episode One of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below. Visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for the next three episodes, launching every Monday starting November 26.