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The Amazing Way Pregnancy Changes A Mother’s Brain So That She Can Care For Her Baby Better!

Posted: January 16, 2017

Pregnancy radically affects a woman’s body and hormones. But, until recently, very little was known about how pregnancy affects the brain of the mother.

Changes during pregnancy are extensive, but it was considered to be limited to the reproductive system and hormones. However recent research shows that pregnancy affects the brain, in not only a significant, but also a systematic and predictable way, to the extent that, by comparing a woman’s brain scans separated by a few years time, it is possible to reliably tell if the woman became pregnant for the first time or not in that period. Interestingly many of these changes are long-lasting, persisting even after the baby turns two.

A recent study concluded that pregnancy is characterized by changes in the maternal brain that prepare a mother for bonding with her baby and also help improve her recognition of the baby’s needs through enhanced emotion and face recognition, thus reducing the chances of post-partum depression.

Method of the study

The study was quite thorough. It was conducted over a period of 5 years and 4 months. Initially 65 women who had never given birth and 56 men without children were scanned. Of these 43 women and 37 of their male partners were looking to become parents soon. Of those who continued to remain in the study, 25 women got pregnant and 20 women, who did not, served as the control group. Among the men, 19 became first time fathers and 17 of them without children served as the control group.

The study recorded brain scans of the pregnant women and their partners around 10 weeks after their baby was born. A second round of brain scans from the control group of men and women were also recorded for comparison.

The Results

There was a significant decrease in the volume of grey matter, the part of the brain which has the nerve cells, in specific sections of the brain post pregnancy, particularly parts of the cerebral cortex that play a key role in social processes. In fact these changes significantly predicted the quality of mother-infant attachment.

No similar changes were seen in first time fathers. Also there were no significant changes in the cognitive abilites of the women who were new mothers, in comparison to the control group. The study, however, is not capable of commenting on cognitive abilities of pregnant women as no measurements were taken during the pregnancy.

Grey matter volume changes in the brain were sufficient to accurately predict if a woman had undergone a pregnancy in the interim period. The grey matter volume changes persisted for at least 2 years and probably longer, except for the selective, partial recovery in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is known to effect memory and anxiety. Perhaps mothers get less anxious with time. At least, I hope so!

Another article claims that the amygdala, which effects memory and emotional responses like fear, grows in the post-partum period, making a mother hypersensitive to her baby’s needs.

The study also found that some of the regions of the brain that underwent grey matter volume reduction, were also the ones that showed strong responses when mothers were shown pictures of their own babies. There was significantly diminished response to pictures of babies that were not their own.

It was found that he grey matter volume changes were not affected by nature of birthing (natural or C-sections) or nature of conception (natural or in-vitro using a variety of techniques) or choice of breast feeding (either complete, partial, or total absence of it). This indicates that these changes are fundamental and occur for all pregnancies.

There is no further loss in neural volume between scans obtained for pregnant women 10 weeks after giving birth and 2 years after giving birth, indicating that the reductions in neural volume most likely occur during gestation and not in the post-partum period.

The study concludes that pregnancy modifies the maternal brain to adapt it for pending motherhood. The study also says that these changes that improve the mother’s ability to identify her child’s needs are important for secure parent-infant attachment and for the development of the child’s own social cognitive functions.

Fathers are, unfortunately, not automatically prepared for fatherhood by their bodies. However, the article I spoke about also states that evolution has created alternative pathways for adaptation to the parental role for human fathers. However these alternative pathways come into existence through practice and day-by-day care-giving.

My impressions

In hind sight, it is not surprising that pregnancy not only prepares a woman’s body for nourishing her baby, but also her mind, for bonding with it.

Is this fair? I think so. Mothers have to bear the brunt of pregnancy and lactation and it is only fair that nature finally favoured us by making child care a little easier. I believe that the parenting load should be shared, even if it may be a little harder for fathers to adapt to.

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Published here earlier.

Image source: pexels

Kanika G, a physicist by training and a mother of 2 girls, started writing to

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  1. Ha! Ha! Kanika, this is a very interesting post! I now feel positive that I too went through some grey matter volume reduction during pregnancy!! But I’d like to think it all came back- twice as much, later!!! Hee! Hee! On a more serious note, I feel that pregnancy and motherhood in a country like India is trivialised a bit because… well… it’s not such a rarity!! But nevertheless, for a woman, it is an enormously challenging and life changing experience both physically and mentally. Our “foremother- ancestors” possibly had little or no insight and appreciation of these facts and therefore just went along with the flow on these matters. They therefore never claimed priority of privileges or advantages- rightfully due to this hugely significant sacrifice of their bodies and the contribution of delivery/care taking of offspring that they made for the male, his family and a future of youthful population in society. But times have changed now, women understand the price of dependence they pay for being married, pregnant, and tied up with the home and children. So several young women in pursuit of achieving independence and self sufficiency on their own, pursue a satisfying career and refuse to marry and have children, preferring instead to fulfil their needs of sex and companionship without marriage and motherhood. This can cause a threat to a society because it means that slowly the aging population will increase and the working population will reduce. Some countries like Japan already face this problem. Thus nations will probably have to address this problem by -1. rewarding mothers monetarily for their contribution of a potential work force 2. by making workplaces more conducive to retain all women (be they mothers or single women) 3. by including older people in the work force as well.

    • 😀
      Actually the grey matter volume reduction implies specialization, aiding in the specialized task of bonding with one’s own child and the researchers clarified that cognitive skills remain unaffected, at least post pregnancy.
      You are quite right. As countries develop they do see a dramatic fall in birth rate and an increased life expectancy. This causes several problems unless the population is replenished by young immigrants from other countries with high birth rates. That is why countries like Norway are so focussed on shared parental leave, encouraging men to take on child care responsibilities to help women reintegrate in to the work force. There is absolutely no reason why women need to bear a greater share of child care responsibilities.

    • Hi Sonia,
      It is always a delight to read your comments. For heaven’s sake, please start writing articles already!

  2. This article has come as a huge consolation as I have always considered myself non-mommy-material. Maybe things will magically change and I wouldn’t want to shove the baby out the door when s/he wails at midnight. All in anticipation.

    • I never considered myself mommy material either especially since I tried to put as much physical gap as I could between me and children in public places and If I had to meet a friend’s kid I was at a loss for things to say. May be, my brain prepared me but I did not have much difficulty bonding with my kids. I did not become super maternal on day one but it wasn’t awkward either. And personally I often feel the urge to shove my screaming kids out of the door but always stop short of it 🙂 At least so far …

  3. Thank you both Mahe and Kanika!! It means the world to me that you would say such a thoughtful thing ! I do often think of writing, but I have difficulty identifying my target audience (and therefore deciding content)when it is a larger unknown group. However, when I feel I know who I am writing to, I can be far more articulate and target oriented. Although I don’t know you personally Kanika, I certainly know you through your writing. So for me, there has to be a resonance too (like with you Mahe) to connect and have deliberations with. If I don’t know or feel a vibe, then I will become all clammed up and unable to say anything meaningful!! Much like talking to strangers!! Ha! Ha! Didn’t mean for this to be a psycho analysis of my writer’s block but nevertheless… Anyway thanks a lot you both for your kind words!!
    Mahe, things will change as the kids get older- they will still drive you nuts sometimes. But more often, you will know how to keep calm and feel on top of things. You will certainly delight in their warmth and comfort and even advice/insights as they get older, so it’ll become easier to forget that they drive you crazy sometimes!! Once they are off to school for longer hours -you will actually miss them too!! (In a very good way- if you know what I mean!!!)
    Kanika, I love your writing on womensweb as it resonates a lot with me. I am more of a non-fiction reader/writer, (though I like reading good fiction sometimes) and enjoy reading “research and analysis” posts, which you seem to specialise in! So thank you for writing and sharing them !

    • Sonia, you should only write if you are comfortable but I just wanted to say this. I had similar reservations. My writing is not very popular because I don’t appeal to emotion. But there are enough people who appreciate it to make it rewarding. If you do choose to write I am sure you will find your audience, because you have interesting things to say. It takes a while though. Initially it feels like you are writing for no one. Although in your case it seems like you have a at least a small fan following already 🙂

    • Well I try not to make emotional arguments in my articles. But I do write some poetry …

  4. Thank you Kanika for your honesty and advice! I love your style and the choice of topics you choose to write about on womensweb. I understand that you write e books for children too. That is a whole different genre and being consistently good at these two is itself a proof of your versatility !!! I’m sure your poetry will be great too! Keep at it and all the very best !!!

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