During pregnancy, a mother’s brain changes to adapt to her baby

December 19, 2016 Providence Health Team

Women who have given birth know pregnancy causes great changes in their bodies, from weight gain to surges of hormones.

A new study has found that pregnancy also affects the structure of the brain. During pregnancy, researchers found, gray matter is reduced in certain regions of the mother’s brain in ways that seem to equip the new mom to bond with her baby.

“We certainly don’t want to put a message out there along the lines of ‘pregnancy makes you lose your brain,’” said lead author Elseline Hoekzema of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who has a 2-year-old child and is pregnant with another baby. “Gray matter volume loss can also represent a beneficial process of maturation or specialization.”

Scanning the brains of first-time moms and dads

Researchers from Leiden University and Autonomous University of Barcelona used an MRI to scan the brains of mothers- and fathers-to-be who hadn’t had babies before; by scanning fathers’ brains, they wanted to eliminate the possibility that the approach of parenthood by itself caused changes in the brain.

They found that first-time moms showed significant changes in gray matter volume in the region that governs their social interactions with others. None of the other groups – men, and women who hadn’t given birth -- showed the same changes in gray matter volume.

Researchers suggested that the changes might help a mother be attuned and attached to her baby.

“These results indicate that pregnancy changes the (gray matter) architecture of the human brain and provide preliminary support for an adaptive process serving the transition into motherhood,” the authors wrote.

The researchers said the changes in the brain could be observed for two years or more.

While changes in gray matter volume were clearly observed, that doesn’t mean that pregnant women develop problems with memory or ability to think, Hoekzema stressed. Despite anecdotal accounts of what some have called “mommy brain” to describe moments of confusion during pregnancy and soon afterward, the changes in the brain do not contribute to such issues. In fact, an Australian study has found that women’s cognitive abilities improve during pregnancy.

Providence has many resources available to help mothers-in-waiting, new mothers and children. Use our directory to find a provider near you.

To learn more

We’ve written a great deal about pregnancy and the arrival of a baby:

Kangaroo mother care helps preemies
It might be best for pregnant women to not sleep on their backs
Early pregnancy: So many choices
Postpartum anxiety is more than the usual new-mom worries
Pregnant women should balance pain relief with potential effects on kids
Children’s brains may be affected by marijuana use during pregnancy
What you need to know about preterm labor

The study, “Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure,” was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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