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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Kanika G, a physicist by training and a mother of 2 girls, started writing to entertain her older daughter with stories, thus opening the flood gates on a suppressed passion. Today she has written over read more...
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My house-help asked excitedly, “I am going for wedding. Can you let me wear your red & black saree? To be honest I was stumped for a moment; I didn’t know what to say but I still said yes.
I lent a gorgeous saree to my house-help for a wedding in her family. Soon I stated getting questions if I would wear that saree again or if I was okay to be seen wearing the same saree my house-help was wearing?
We are all so conditioned to give our used clothes to our house-helps but are we okay to wear the clothes they were wearing?
A few days ago she came excitedly to me, “I am going for a family wedding. I want to wear your red & black saree, Ill wash and give it to you after the function. Please can you let me wear it?”
Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum (SISP) is an ode to all of the lost women, who could have been sports stars, singers, bankers, lawyers, doctors, just... happy, if they hadn't been enslaved in matrimony, and then forgotten all about.
One of the cool things about my mother was that she was an ace athlete and a champion sculler as a young woman in the 1950s and 60s. I only found out about this side of her a few years ago. I imagine her in a paavaadai dhaavani, taking on the mighty Kaveri river so many decades ago.
I recently watched a Tamil film anthology on SonyLiv that she would have liked to watch – Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, (SISP) that has 3 stories of 3 different women – Saraswathi, Devaki, and Shivaranjini.
Like all the heroines in the anthology, my mother’s talents were sacrificed at the altar of matrimony. She pawned her gold medals and silver cups one by one to pay for expensive textbooks for us or a gift for a niece on her wedding, money for which she didn’t dare ask my father, because it was her niece… I remember how she caressed the cups and how her face hardened as she shoved them into her bag to take to the jewellers.
Women's rights on abortion in India upheld by the Bombay High Court. A detailed look at this important judgment
Bombay High Court upholds the precious right of a pregnant woman to say ‘NO’ to motherhood! Here are the detailed key observations on women’s rights around abortion in India.
I cannot but feel exhilarated with happiness! The recent Bombay High Court judgment (titled High Court On Its Own Motion vs. The State of Maharashtra- Suo Moto Public Interest Litigation No. 1 of 2016) on the ‘right of a woman to choose to stay pregnant’ or to ‘choose to terminate her pregnancy’ is extremely important because it lays down, in absolutely clear language and intent, the crucial principles on a woman’s right to autonomy to decide what to do with her own body!
I have read the judgment five times already and each time, I find myself nodding in agreement and joy with every reasoning, analysis and legal principle carefully crafted out in the judgment.
Every woman's pregnancy is different, and a unique experience. There is no need for others to give their gyaan and scare her. Let the woman, her partner, and her doctor handle it all.
Every woman’s pregnancy is different, and a unique experience. There is no need for others to give their gyaan and scare her. Let the woman, her partner, and her doctor handle it all.
The moment a woman is pregnant there is a plethora of suggestions and advice that comes her way. Everybody around tells her what to do and what not to do. The people close to her take maximum effort not to let her stress or take any tension.
Among these useful suggestions, there also come a few that are not very helpful, and even troublesome and distressing.