So, I wish I knew what I know now about how a mother’s brain literally changes during pregnancy and afterward. We’ve known for years about all the physical changes, but it’s only been the last few years that research has uncovered powerful evidence of what occurs in a mothers brain. The level of cognitive changes is incredible and a lead researcher on pregnancy and the brain, Elseline Hoekzema, at Leiden University in the Netherlands states, “I’ve never seen anything like this in any of the data sets I’ve worked with. In a way, it’s no surprise given the extreme nature of the hormone floods that women are exposed to during this period, but still, I hadn’t expected such remarkably robust findings and this degree of differentiation,” when describing how much a women’s brain changes during this stage of her life.
Ask any mother you know about the way she felt after having her baby and she will tell you stories of forgetfulness about little things, like whether she loaded the laundry into the dryer or whether she ate or slept for two days. But then she will explain how she can sense her babies every need, whether it’s due to hunger or a dirty diaper, and she knows the sound of her babies cry in a roomful of other babies without hesitation. She will become fiercely protective and she will obsess over things she never thought of before, like how to lay her baby down to sleep at night and what organic food they should eat, so she can ensure her child’s safety at all costs.
She will often experience a level of anxiety like she has never felt before when her baby has a fever or can’t sleep at night because they are teething. She can break into a full sweat at the thought of her baby having its first shots or feel a fear beyond belief when she wakes in the night and does not hear her baby breathing on the baby monitor. This range of emotions can feel frightening and a woman can suddenly feel at loose ends. She has so many responsibilities being thrown at her with her new baby and she literally feels out of control with her own emotions.
Research data states that after childbirth the parts of the brain involved in “social processes and the ability to attribute emotions and mental states to other people,” which are key to raising children, increase in activity dramatically. These changes stimulate a mother to develop a higher level of emotional attachment to their children. These changes in the brain are normal and help a woman grow into a good mother. Without these changes in the brain, maternal attachment and nurturing would be much more difficult.
The brain has two types of matter, gray matter and white matter. They believe the grey matter decreases in size in that region of the brain that relates to socialization and emotions, thereby allowing the white matter in that same region to increase its connectivity which enables a woman to become an amazing multitasker in all avenues of her life and form deep attachments to her children.
They relate this idea to the same type of processing called “pruning” that occurs in the brain during puberty. Only the important processes are kept for the progression of life, and the others that do not appear as valuable are gotten rid of.
A woman needs these brain changes to raise children, but it can change a women’s brain so much that she barely recognizes herself anymore. This can lead to anxiety, loneliness and a feeling of separation from the rest of the women she knows.
Because many women have no understanding of how the brain will change when their baby comes, they will suffer from mood swings and possibly postpartum depression; alone and without understanding on how to describe their dilemma to their husband, family, friends or health care provider. They often feel ashamed that they have these feelings and will never speak of them to anyone, as they see this as a failure in their life.
Recently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended redesigning fourth-trimester care to have a more inclusive mental and physical plan. This includes a screening and assessment of a women’s emotional health along with an assessment of musculoskeletal health by a women’s health physical therapist trained in postpartum care. I believe there needs to be more education and understanding about what a mom’s brain and body goes through when having a baby so that women will be open to sharing their feelings with others and not feel judgment about their ability to be a good mother.
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Sheree DiBiase, PT, is the owner of Lake City Physical Therapy and the mother of three 20-something sons. She and her incredible staff believe mom’s need to have education and training after having babies for their physical and emotional well-being. Please come to see us at any of our three offices: Coeur d’Alene, 208-667-1988; Spokane Valley, 509-891-2623 and Hayden, 208-762-2100.