fertility, mental health, mental illness, New baby, Parenting, perinatal, pregnancy

What Happened to Me? Is “Baby Brain” really a thing?

Baby-Brain-600.x422

If you have had children, you are likely to feel like almost has everything changed in your life when you became a parent – the way you think, your sleep patterns, your relationship with partner and family, your social situation, your economic capacity, your body (oh goodness, how that changes, especially during pregnancy!!), your house/car, etc etc.

Many people (especially mums) will say that their brains also work different after having a baby: especially their emotional responses and memory abilities.

Recent research shows us that these perceived changes are real: having a baby actually changes the way our brain works, and functions like memory and emotion actually  change.  Check out this great article to understand these changes better and maybe discover why you just can’t find your car keys…. http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2015/11/30/the-transition-to-parenthood-what-happened-to-me

“The researchers found two main regions of the brain particularly active in new parents. The first is the “emotion-processing network.” This is located centrally and developed earlier in evolution than the neocortex (see below). It involves the limbic, or feeling, circuitry and includes:

  • The amygdala, which makes us vigilant and highly focused on survival
  • The oxytocin-producing hypothalamus, which bonds us to our newborns
  • The dopamine system, which rewards us with a squirt of the feel-good hormone to make us motivated and enjoy parenting

All together, this network creates a heightened emotionality in parents in response to their babies. In fact, according to researchers Laura Glynn and Curt Sandman, the volume of gray matter (or number of neural cell bodies) increases in the above regions in new mothers and is associated with their positive feelings toward their infants. (See Glynn and Sandman’s review article on brain changes in pregnant mothers.)

The second region is the “mentalizing network” that involves the higher cortex, or the more thinking regions of the brain. This area, along with additional superhighways that develop between the emotion and mentalizing systems, focuses attention and grounds in the present moment: Who couldn’t stare at a new baby forever? It also facilitates the ability to “feel into” what a baby needs: Areas of the brain that involve cognitive empathy and the internal imaging of, or resonance with, a baby, light up. These regions help a parent read nonverbal signals, infer what a baby might be feeling and what he/she might need, and even plan for what might be needed later in the future (long-term goals). These regions are also associated with multitasking and better emotion regulation. In other words, parents’ brains are remodeled to protect, attune with, and plan for their infants.

Other research has found that hormonal changes in pregnant women dampen their physical and psychological stress response, as if to make more space to tune in to their babies’ needs.

But along with all these changes, there seems to be a collateral cognitive hit: In a meta-analysis of 17 studies, 80% of women reported impaired aspects of memory (recall and executive function) that began in pregnancy and persisted into the postpartum period.”

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