What happens in the mother’s brain after birth

Artist Sarah Walker says that motherhood is like discovering the existence of a strange new room in the house you already live in.

And this is one of the best descriptions of life with a newborn: everything changes.

Even before a woman gives birth, pregnancy brings changes in her brain structure, neuroscientists say. Something is happening in the prefrontal cortex, the midbrain, the parietal lobes and elsewhere.

The gray matter becomes more concentrated. Brain activity increases in the centers that control empathy, anxiety and social interaction.

At the most basic level, these changes brought about by the flux of hormones during pregnancy and in the postpartum period contribute to the strong bond between mother and child.

In other words, these maternal feelings of overwhelming love, cruel patronage, and constant worry start with reactions in the brain.

Mapping the mother’s brain is the key to understanding why young mothers experience severe anxiety and depression, scientists believe.

One in six women suffer from postpartum depression and many more develop behaviors such as compulsive hand washing and obsessive checks to see if the baby is breathing.

“This is what we call an aspect of almost obsessive-compulsive behavior during the first few months after birth,” says maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim.

There are several interconnected areas of the brain that help drive maternal behavior and mood. Of particular interest to researchers is the cluster of neurons known as the amygdala, which is responsible for memory and emotional responses such as fear, anxiety and aggression.

Increased activity in the amygdala makes the young mother hypersensitive to her baby’s needs. A cocktail of hormones contributes to creating a positive feedback loop to motivate maternal behavior.


Just by watching the baby, the satisfaction centers in the mother’s brain are activated. This affects even the sweet way a mother talks to her baby, her attentiveness to him, her affection and her feelings.

On the other hand, damage to the amygdala is associated with higher levels of depression in mothers.

They can also affect the mother-child relationship. A newborn’s ability to distinguish between its mother and someone else is linked to the amygdala.

Activity in the amygdala is also associated with a mother’s strong feelings for her own baby, compared to other people’s children. In a study among mothers in labor, it was proven that they experience more positive feelings when they see their own babies in a photo than those of strangers.

Increased amygdala response to watching one’s own children is associated with lower anxiety levels in mothers and less depressive symptoms, researchers have found.

Much of what happens in the amygdala in young mothers has to do with hormones flowing into it. This area of ​​the brain has a high concentration of receptors for hormones such as oxytocin, which is produced in abundance during pregnancy.

The level of this hormone rises when women look at their children, or hear them cry or laugh when they cuddle them. The increase in oxytocin during breastfeeding is the reason why nursing mothers are more sensitive to the sounds made by their babies than non-nursing mothers.

What goes on in the heads of women in labor, according to scientists, is very similar to falling in love. The biggest changes in the brain occur with the birth of the first child. Men also see such changes when they are heavily involved in parental care.

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