Many parents have heard of or experienced “Mommy Brain” – a phrase that refers to a parents inability to think clearly or remember things as easily as they had pre-baby. Many parents lament the loss of their mental prowess, but if you suffer (or suffered) from “Mommy Brain”, relax, new research says it’s a good thing!
Studies with mice, rats and other mammals have show positive growth and physical changes in the brains of new mothers. These changes appear to prepare the animals for their new maternal role and the benefits are shown to last throughout their lifespan. With the help of brain imaging, researchers have now demonstrated similar findings in human Moms.
The parts of the brain that show growth (midbrain and prefrontal cortex) are those that experience pleasure (a.k.a. reward), motivation and emotional regulation. These areas are also involved in planning and foresight, which may help new parents anticipate and meet their baby’s needs.
It it not clear yet, what comes first – if caring for an infant causes brain changes, or brain changes cause us to care for our infants, but either way, the research does show a clear relationship between the two. These brain changes may explain or be a factor in why parents feel motivated to care for their baby. Think about around the clock care, 2am feedings, and so much more! It may also explain why parents feel so much pleasure and reward during positive interactions with their baby. Think of the pleasure you receive when your child smiles at you, versus a stranger – or pretty much anyone else on the planet!
Mothers who appear to take the most pleasure and joy in their new maternal role and with their new child, experience the most brain growth in the area of emotional regulation.
The research did not detail why these Mothers were so much happier. Theories speculate that a genetic predisposition to better moods, easier babies and lifestyles could be factors. Also, unrelated studies have found that the way a person is parented in childhood is an important factor in determining later parenting, so perhaps happier Mothers are primed from early on.
Other unrelated studies have also shown an increase in a woman’s brainpower after children – namely the areas of greater motivation, fearlessness, stress-coping capabilities and even learning and memory skills. So what is to blame for “Mommy Brain”? Researchers hypothesize that lack of sleep and a shift in priorities may account for those “Mommy Moments”. With a new baby there is clearly a lot going on and new parents may shift their focus to remember and pay attention to what is important for their baby and away from non-essential items.
– The term “Mommy Brain” is thought to have been coined sometime in the early 1960’s after a flood of women had entered the workforce and were now balancing home and work life.
– The research only looked at brain size. It did not measure a Mother’s mental cognition but typically brain growth and getting smarter go hand-in-hand.
– Adoptive mothers were not included in this survey but cursory antidotal evidence reports that adoptive Mothers also experience “Mommy Brain”.
– Data shows that women who suffer from postpartum depression are less able (motivated) to take care of their children. They take less pleasure in their new maternal role and in their children. Postpartum depression is a condition that can be transitory and does not need to define your overall relationship with your child or you as a parent, so if you suffer from postpartum depression your best option is to seek professional help.