How Pregnancy Actually Changes Your Brain

Turns out it's not just your imagination. Researchers have just released a study confirming what mothers across the world have already known — having a baby changes much more about your body than areas revealed in your pre-pregnancy bikini. But does pregnancy change your brain? The short answer is yes, but not in the way conventional wisdom would have you think.

Pregnant women and new mothers are often portrayed as forgetful and foggy, suffering from "mom brain," the result of hormone surges during pregnancy, according to a CBS News report on a study last year from the University of British Columbia. The results seemed to be presented as some kind of defense of the motherhood caricature of a disheveled mess unable to think clearly or rationally — all a cartoonish portrayal of what's a much more complex time in a person's life.

"Hormones have a profound impact on our mind," Dr. Liisa Galea who worked on the earlier study said, according to CBS News. "Pregnancy and motherhood are life-changing events resulting in marked alterations in the psychology and physiology of a woman. Our results argue that these factors should be taken into account when treating brain disorders in women."

But look around at any group of new mothers you know — anecdotal evidence demonstrates that this perception of new mothers as trading in their cognitive abilities for pacifiers and breastfeeding may simply not be true. Anyone who's ever tried to take care of a newborn, all while navigating the everyday hassles of life, knows it's a job for someone on top of their game and able to manage plenty of physical demands, as well as plenty of mental, cognitive challenges too.

A new study seems like a much more accurate evaluation of what happens to a pregnant woman's brain. According to the new data from researchers working at Leiden University in the Netherlands, it's not that pregnancy degrades a woman's ability to think, it's that it changes her thinking in preparation for the specific demands of motherhood, according to CNN.

"We certainly don’t want to put a message out there on the lines of ‘pregnancy makes you lose your brain,’ as we don’t believe this is the case," researcher Elseline Hoekzma who led the latest research study said, according to The New York Times.

Instead, the researchers found, pregnancy helps prepare the brain to focus on the things most important for taking care of a baby, like "a mother’s ability to recognize the needs of her infant, to recognize social threats or to promote mother-infant bonding," Hoekzma added.

Going even further to shatter the "mommy brain" myth, researchers added that all the new learning required of new mothers can actually help the development of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, The Times reported.

“That boost in the memory system is something that many of us in neuroscience would give our eyeteeth to achieve,” Dr. Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California told The Times about the latest findings. It's common for those parts of the brain to erode as we age, he added, "like the erosion of the coast, but there are not many things that put the coast back."

So the next time you hear someone tease a pregnant woman or new mother for putting the remote in the refrigerator, remember, she's got more important things on her mind, like taking care of a tiny, helpless human. That doesn't mean she's not as smart as she was a few short months ago, it's that her brain is likely adapting for her new, very important role. That, and she probably hasn't had a decent night's sleep in weeks.