Were You Prepared for the Changes a New Mom’s Brain Undergoes?

mom brainWe recently came across the story, “Motherhood brings the most dramatic brain changes of a woman’s life — So why does prenatal care ignore the topic altogether?” in The Boston Globe Magazine. We made a note to link to it in this week’s News Roundup but we also thought it was worth its own post. The writer, Chelsea Conaboy, shares her own experience with around-the-clock anxiety as a new mom and asks, “Shouldn’t we be better preparing mothers about well-documented brain changes they could expect, before baby is born?” The brain changes that moms undergo have surprised researchers with their magnitude, and studies haven’t found comparable developments in fathers’ brains. (Here’s another little-known occurrence: Did you know that DNA from your baby’s cells can transfer to your own body? The fetal material can get into your bloodstream and enter your organs, bringing both positive and negative effects. That sounds a bit creepy, doesn’t it?)

Several experts Conaboy interviewed don’t think it’s wise to make pregnant women aware of the significant ways their brains will change as they become mothers, surprisingly — or perhaps not so surprisingly, considering that the health of mothers isn’t always prioritized when compared to their babies’ well-being and that moms-to-be aren’t always educated about the changes their bodies can go through, from childbirth injuries to diastasis recti. (In fact, infant mortality in the U.S. is at its lowest ever, while maternal mortality is “by many measures, the worst in the developed world” [source].)

So let’s have a discussion today: Were you prepared for the emotional and cognitive changes you underwent during pregnancy and the postpartum period? Did you experience anxiety and/or depression after having a baby and find yourself, say, compelled to keep checking at night that your baby was breathing? Did you encounter “pregnancy brain” or “mom brain”? (Eight years after having my son, I feel like “mom brain” is here to stay. Sigh.) Did you feel like your brain quickly adapted to the challenges of bonding with and taking care of a baby? What did you wish you had known about these things before becoming a mom? Do you wish these huge neurological changes were more commonly known and accepted as fact — or do you think that would make things harder for working mothers and working women who want to get pregnant?

Note: The Boston Globe appears to only let non-subscribers access an article more than once without blocking access (and using Incognito Mode doesn’t work).  

Here are a few excerpts from the article (which is rather lengthy):

After childbirth, [researchers found that] the volume of gray matter in the mothers’ brains changed dramatically, particularly in regions involved in social processes and “theory of mind,” or the ability to attribute emotions and mental states to other people — key in raising a human.

[Researchers] can’t yet say whether postpartum mood disorders are the result of something gone awry in the typical changes that a mother’s brain goes through or whether they are caused by a triggering of other brain circuitry.

What would happen if we gave expectant mothers even a basic understanding of how and why their brains change? Would it help them to cope with the unfamiliar emotional experiences that very often are part of a healthy experience of new motherhood?

Did your doctor or midwife advise you on how your brain would undergo physical and functional changes as a new mom? Were there other things you think you should have been better prepared for by your ob/gyn? Did you find “mom brain” to be a real thing?

Further reading:

  • Reframing Mommy Brain [New York Times]
  • The Science of “Mom Brain” [Psychology Today]
  • Pregnancy changes a mother’s brain for years, study shows [CNN]
  • Moms: Your Kids Hijacked Your Brain for Life [Wired]

Picture via Stencil.

 There's so much in popular culture about "new mom brain" -- did you know that there's a lot of actual science behind it? We talk with our professional working mom blog readers about what changes they were aware of, what new mom changes they wished they'd known about in advance, and what they think should be more commonly discussed in society and the working world.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I read this this week and thought it was really interesting! First, I definitely noticed there was a difference between me and my husband and our approach to our baby, which I chalked up to hormones. While he is a great dad, wanted to spend time with our son, true partner, etc, he also had no problem going to back to work and doesn’t seem to feel the same kind of primitive drive that I did to be with my son all the time, especially in the first months.

    Work-wise I still attribute any difficulty I had getting back in the game to lack of sleep, not brain changes (or at least, maybe brain changes caused by lack of sleep).

  2. Anonymous says:

    I admit, I’m pregnant and this article scared me a bit. I was already not super happy about the changes my body is going through, now they say my brain is going to change too?

    • Lana Del Raygun says:

      SAME. And it’s so hard to know with popular science reporting what’s actually real, or how much “scientists say they can tell the difference by looking at your brain scan” actually affects the experience of having this brain.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is a big issue for me. I’m almost a year postpartum, been back at work for 7 months. My baby started sleeping through the night before I went back to work. Emotionally I feel fine, if anything less anxious than I was before I had a baby, and not having periods means I’m less moody (husband has even commented that I seem more calm and even-keeled now). But I feel like my cognitive function, and especially my creativity, is just not there any more. My job requires a fair amount of creativity and I’m just not doing it as well as I was before. I’m pretty sure my co-workers and boss think I’m either sleep-deprived or slacking so I can spend more time with my baby, but neither is true. I’m doing my best and my best is just not that good, and that’s a really hard thing for someone who has always been an excellent student and employee to accept. I’ve been thinking about going to a doctor but I don’t even know who I could say (my OB? a neurologist?) or what they could do. I hate that I’m playing into the ‘mom brain’ narrative, but my experience has definitely been that pregnancy and motherhood had a huge impact on my brain.

    • I’ve noticed this too, and unfortunately still don’t feel like my brain has bounced back some 2.5 years post partum. I’m in a writing intensive/semi creative field and it’s a struggle to write and think as clearly as I used to (case-in-point: I’m having trouble coming up with the right wording for this post). And I can’t chalk it up to sleep deprivation or that I am spending all the time thinking about the kid – it’s just hard to produce what I consider to be quality work as easily as I had in the past. Anyone else struggle with this and figure out a solution?

    • For anyone who may come back to this thread and be concerned, I want to chime in that, at least in my case, I don’t feel that I have lost any cognitive ability whatsoever. Basically, don’t start overthinking this until you really have something to be concerned about. On the other hand, like AIMS, most of my challenges since pregnancy stem from being a working mom and the majority of household management tasks, which multiply x10 at least with the birth of a child, falling on my shoulders. Yes, blah blah, equal partnership – but it just doesn’t work that way. My husband doesn’t have a uterus or b00bs. He doesn’t get paid leave from work. So from day 1 it’s us who have to shoulder 90% of the responsibility. The fight to offload some of it onto DH is ongoing three years later and isn’t always a success. And the fight takes as much work as just doing the stuff. He thinks that he contributes by changing diapers, reading nighttime stories, minding her during some “family” time, and opening a can of beans every now and then. But anything relating to long-term planning (i.e. I’ve had to find daycares three times since she was born due to various circumstances, which is a FEAT in our area), finding a SMALL selection of toys for new growth stages, classes, doctors, dentists, family time activities, meals – literally everything having to do with actual management is me and only me. I don’t think this will ever change because I just clearly care more about this. I want my daughter to learn to swim and learn another language and obviously to be happy in daycare and to have good healthy food. Theoretically my husband wants all of this too but not enough to quickly find all of this stuff to accommodate a growing child. He’s a good guy and caring dad but just isn’t super motivated to get $hit done. Combined with a society that applauds dads for just showing up, he thinks he’s doing pretty well and is happy to chill out. What the heck are moms supposed to do against these expectations? Throw in the towel and play sandbox every day until kids are old enough to go out on their own? I guess I would resent such a childhood and want to do better by my kid even if I’m spending a lot more time on household tasks than my husband.

      • Sorry – not AIMS but govtattorneymom had the point that I would emphasize more. Although AIMS is also on point!

  4. I think we don’t talk about it much because women already face so much difficulty from pregnancy. The last thing most working women want to acknowledge is that their cognitive function may be in some way impaired at any point before, during or after pregnancy. I get that and feel it but, of course, I also see the cons to that approach, such as being ill prepared for dealing with it.

    The other problem is everyone experiences these things so differently. So it really would be a problem if people assumed you weren’t firing on all cylinders just because you were pregnant or had a kid because maybe you are or maybe you’re not. For me, I definitely felt a bit “foggy” with pregnancy 1 in the first trimester though not in pregnancy 2. It mainly manifested itself in forgetfulness and I just tried to compensate for it but I was surprised. I was ready for it with no. 2 but it never hit, though maybe because I was prepared?

    I do think it’s good to talk about anxiety and PPD and to be mindful of how late it can hit. I felt like I got a lot of attention from everyone early on post-baby but was not prepared to still have hormones affect me months later (maybe it was sleep deprivation but who knows). Looking back I can see how I may have been a bit off but at the time it didn’t occur to me to question it. And I definitely had some anxiety hit but it was until after I weaned and that’s another thing no one ever seems to talk about but seems to affect a substantial enough number of women.

  5. The postpartum hormones are rough- at least for me. And the enormity of being responsible for the wellbeing of another human forever really didn’t hit me until after I gave birth and then it totally freaked me out. One of the many reasons this country would benefit from paid maternity and paternity leave of decent lengths. I wish I could’ve taken more time off from work, both to bond with the baby and to maybe go back to work with a child who is sleeping through the night. I also desperately wanted to be with my husband after delivering but he only got one week off

  6. NewMomAnon says:

    I definitely feel distracted and duller after having a kid. It’s harder to absolutely knock a work project out of the park like I used to do. Part of it is that I *am* distracted. If I have a big, difficult project, I can’t set my life aside for a week and focus on that project to the exclusion of everything else. I still have to feed kiddo dinner, put her to bed, manage her big feelings and confusions and questions, make sure my house is safe for both of us (ie, get toys off the floor, ensure my sink isn’t growing science experiments, clean the things that kiddo is likely to lick, etc). And I have a hard time doing my work and my parenting work on less than 7 hours of sleep each night, so I need to prioritize sleep in a way that wasn’t so important before. I literally have fewer hours in the day to spend on work, and I feel the impact of that.

    But some of it feels like a curtain thrown over the parts of my brain that used to light up at a new project. It feels like those areas are still there but I can’t access them, so I have to find other ways to get the work done. Which is probably OK, because it means I rely a lot more on checklists and processes and documenting my work, and less on the un-harnessable “spark” I used to use. It’s not as much fun though, and it’s harder to force myself to do it.

  7. I still feel that I am going through significant neurological change, and my kid is a toddler. It is consistent with the type of change described in the article: my brain is rewired to use all of its resources to change the world in order to benefit my family.

    Change isn’t easy, but to be frank, I have never cared so much about anything in my entire life, and it forces me to be courageous and brilliant, two qualities that are not linked as often as they should be.

    I wish the article focused more on the positive aspects of all of this neurological change, rather than the challenges of the process. There are many lights running along this path, and motherhood can be an empowering experience.

  8. govtattorneymom says:

    Postpartum hormones and brain changes actually positively impacted my experience in the early days of mommyhood. I felt peaceful, grateful, and fulfilled (and I attribute some of these feelings to hormones). I had some prototypical thoughts (dropping baby, checking to make sure she was breathing, etc.), but they did not upset me greatly. The sleep deprivation was unfortunate, but the early days were uncomplicated and sweet.

    My challenges started around eight months postpartum. I was taking on more responsibility at work (I was no longer cutting myself slack for being sleep-deprived and having a newborn in the house). My daughter is now a toddler, and I continue to struggle with the reality that my life will consist of lawyering and taking care of my daughter (very little else) for the foreseeable future. I attribute my struggles as a working mom, not to “brain changes” or hormones, but to the societal expectation/reality that moms work from sun up to sun down. I see the problem as a societal one rather than a biological one.

    • I think this is a really good point. Part of the problem is its so hard to unwind these things. Like what part of the anxiety stems from the fact that good affordable day care is so hard to find? Or that we are forced to leave our kids before we may be ready? Or even that we are not living in the same social structures as before with a bunch of grandparents, aunts and others nearby to help out?

      I also agree about some of the positive stuff. I had some positive changes early on with my first that were probably hormonal. I never had much in the way of a “nesting impulse” in my life but when my daughter was born I was suddenly able to have a really clean house with soup and baked goods available at all times. I think it was just the result of being stuck at home in the winter with a lot of unexpected energy and a baby that slept well but I really missed that when my second was born and I didn’t get that “surge.”

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