Mommy Brain

 “It’s inexplicable. I was shocked.  I’m a completely
different person than what I was before.” —Veteran Mom

Mommy Brain

 “It’s inexplicable. I was shocked. I’m a completely
different person than what I was before.” —Veteran Mom

 Your Emerging Mommy Brain

“Pregnancy Brain” is typically used to describe the forgetfulness and general brain fog that settles in during pregnancy, but that hardly describes the powerful brain restructuring that’s preparing you for the challenges of motherhood.

For decades, dads have said it’s not just a new baby they bring home from the hospital: it’s a new wife, too. Now, with the research, we can tell dads why… 

The Mommy Brain Makeover

What goes on in a mother’s mind is a beautiful combination of nature and nurture. You’ve probably read about hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and prolactin that drive the incredible changes in your body, but your brain is also hard at work on some major restructuring.

Among the structural changes taking place, 100 billion neurons are being repurposed to form connections (synapses) specifically for motherhood. Your hefty brain boost includes enhancements in:

  • Maternal motivation/behavior
  • Emotional processing
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Multi-tasking

While your brain is under reconstruction, it temporarily shrinks in density (up to six percent) but don’t panic because it’s back to full weight by six months after childbirth. 

So if you find yourself frustrated because you keep losing your keys, it’s not because your brain is turning to mush but because it’s getting even sharper. Nature is gifting you superpowers that make you a highly motivated, super-focused woman, fully capable of caring for your baby. 

“Motherhood changes you because it literally alters a woman’s brain—structurally, functionally, and in many ways, irreversibly.”

-Louann Brizendine,
The Female Brain

Oxytocin On Your Mind

Of all the hormones coursing through your body, oxytocin (AKA the “love hormone”) has the most impact. Many of the rewired neurons have oxytocin receptors built specifically for motherhood; just thinking about your baby, cuddling, or smelling their soft skin releases this hormone’s feel-good sensations (for dads too).

During childbirth, oxytocin stimulates contractions (Pitocin, a synthetic version of it, is used to induce labor), and it’s a major player in breastfeeding, assisting with the release (“let down”) of milk. Oxytocin also ensures that we bond and care for our little one.

After a few months of oxytocin getting us hooked on mommyhood, the hormone tapers off though still remains high. It’s so resilient that, years from now, just looking at baby clothes can flood you with emotion and bring you to tears. And studies have shown that hits of oxytocin are even stronger than cocaine, which explains why we become so focused and driven to do more for our baby and more we most surely do.

READ! 11 Interesting Effects of Oxytocin

mommy pregnancy brain oxytocin

"At Boot Camp, one of the moms mentioned one of the effects of oxytocin is that it just completely changed her personality. Before giving birth, she was a really stressed out, high-strung, personality … After giving birth, she did a complete one-eighty. She became this calm person and it was just all about baby, which was the exact same thing that happened to me and I’m so glad" - Veteran Mom

Gatekeeping

Definition of gatekeeper1: one that tends or guards a gate, 2: a person who controls access
—Merriam Webster

One of the biggest challenges to parenting as a team is gatekeeping—that strong hormonal instinct moms experience that convinces us we’re the only one capable of caring for our baby. It’s primitive biology in overdrive. In cave mom days, there was much to be fearful of—lions, tigers and bears—and

Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., a mom and researcher from Ohio State University, studied couples before and after their first baby was born, and the results showed that even moms who fully intended to co-parent struggled with gatekeeping and letting their partner in on baby care.

You may be gatekeeping if…

  • You’re hesitant to let anyone but you handle baby care
  • You’re anxious Dad will “screw it up”
  • You micro-manage and criticize how Dad does things
  • For a one-hour errand, you leave ten pages of detailed instructions

You might feel resentful because you’re handling all the baby care, which is a big red flag you may be gatekeeping and actually preventing Dad (and others) from helping out. And gatekeeping is an upward spiral. If your mommy brain blocks Dad’s ability to bond with his baby, his daddy brain is at a deficit because he’s not getting the necessary father-child interactions that build bonding and positive brain changes for parenthood. 

So how do we keep gatekeeping at bay?

We say YES to Dad’s involvement and encouraging him to bond and feel confident. It’s hard when hormones are running high, so you’ll want to talk about gatekeeping in advance and agree on how you’ll both handle it (with extended family, too). It may mean you leave the room or the house so Dad can get that important, one-on-one time with the baby. Some couples use a code word to signal when gatekeeping pops up. Whatever helps you both recognize and manage it—success! 

READ! Why Moms Don’t Let Dads Help

"I was always over my husband's shoulder. If he didn't hold the bottle right, I would tell him to do it this way. After four months, he sat me down and said, ‘You know, he's my child too. I do know how to handle him.’...It was difficult for me to let go a little bit and for him to understand where I was coming from. I think it's something you should talk about, because it won't always go as planned." — Veteran Mom

“I hover and correct when things aren't done the way I would do it. I remember we talked about it when I came to Boot Camp as a pregnant woman, and I thought ‘I won’t do that,’ but I don’t have a filter when it comes to correcting. So, yeah, I will leave…Because if I’m in another room and I hear him I will go in there and I’m right back to correcting him.” — Veteran Mom

The Impact of It All

Along with all the shifts in brain chemistry, expect an emotional shift that may take you by surprise. Overwhelming feelings of responsibility, vulnerability, devotion and fear may come in waves and leave you wondering: Who am I?

Even the most career-oriented woman may suddenly find she’s questioning her goals and priorities.1 If you were determined to go back to work, your brain may be saying otherwise. If you weren’t planning to work, it may fall back on your radar (and with all your new brain power, a raise is in order!). Biology can also hijack your brain circuits and lead to over-zealously protecting Baby from everyone including super trustworthy and loving Dad.

So anticipate that even your most well thought out plans may need some rethinking once your baby is born. While your beliefs and characteristics will shape you as a mom, the biological changes you experience will affect your choices and the direction you take. Conversations and understanding the big “why” will make the process less stressful and help you and Dad manage things constructively.

In other words, don’t let your hormones swing you by the tail!   


1 Brizendine, M.D., L. (2006) The Female Brain, New York:  Random House

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