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Pregnancy creates massive changes to your brain structure

MOTHER AND CHILD
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All of this information reminds me that my body is built to handle motherhood with grace.

I hardly even recognize the person I was before my first child was born. I used to chalk the difference up to the radically different lifestyle that I lead now that I’m up to my elbows in kids. And certainly the way that having children has changed my day-to-day life is enormous. But it’s not just my life that’s changed. Researchers are starting to report that becoming a mother brings profound physical changes to a woman’s brain.

Chelsea Conaboy, writing on this dramatic transformation, quotes Jodi Pawluski, a researcher of the neurobiology of the maternal brain: “[Motherhood is] one of the most significant biological events, I would say, you would have in your life.”

To put it another way: remember the difference between 10-year-old you and 15-year-old you, after you’d gone through puberty? Pretty major difference, right? 

“Reviewing a range of studies, Pawluski and her coauthors wrote in a 2016 paper that as a developmental period, pregnancy is as formative as puberty,” Conaboy continues.

Pregnancy might change your brain about as much as puberty does, and they’re not subtle changes. The article points out that “the degree of change [was] enough that researchers could easily sort the women who had had a pregnancy from those that hadn’t.” 

And then it’s not just the degree of change that’s interesting here, it’s the types of change. She goes on, “The biggest changes happen ‘in regions involved in social processes and theory of mind, or the ability to attribute emotions and mental states to other people — key in raising a human.’” And, “The more brain change the mothers experienced, the higher they scored on measures of emotional attachment to their babies.”

There are still years of research that need to be done, and we still don’t know nearly enough to draw many conclusions. Still, new as this information is, it’s important. Pregnant mothers hear all about the different kinds of changes that their bodies are going to go through, and we read books about our baby’s physical and mental development. But pregnancy is a developmental stage for the mother, too. We’re so used to thinking of adult brains as brains that are finished developing, that we completely overlook what’s going on in our own brain.

It’s validating to hear studies confirm that it’s more than just my lifestyle that’s changed. And it’s comforting, because all of this information reminds me that my body is built to handle motherhood with grace. My own brain structure is helping me to give my children what they need — a mother who is empathetic and in tune with her children’s emotions. Even if my brain weren’t helping me with that, it’s exactly the kind of mother I’d be trying to be.

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