Sex & Relationships

New Study: Pregnancy Changes Your Brain So You Can Be a Better Mom

Women's brains get reorganized after giving birth.

Photo Credit: Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock

We know what pregnancy will do to the body, but what effect does it have on the brain? A pretty significant one, it seems. A new study finds pregnancy triggers fundamental changes in the mother's brain, specifically in the areas involved in empathy and attachment, suggesting if you weren’t already born with the maternal instinct, getting pregnant will help put you on that path.

Researchers from the Netherlands and Spain relied on magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brain structures of 25 first-time mothers before and shortly after pregnancy. The scans revealed that women who had given birth experienced a loss of gray matter in brain areas involved in social cognition. The majority of changes remained up to two years after giving birth, when the children would be entering into toddlerhood.

The drop in gray matter volume overlapped with areas associated with what’s known as the “theory of mind" network" or regions of the brain linked to the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others. The researchers noted that the same regions light up in new moms when looking at photos of their own children, compared to other babies.

“These findings provide some [of] the first evidence that these [brain changes] may in some way help a mother to care for her infant,” said Elseline Hoekzema, co-author of the research from Leiden University.

“[It] is not that mothers are losing brain cells, losing gray matter in these regions, it is that they have actually have other cells come in to help reorganize and change up some of those connections to strengthen them, or at least make them more efficient,” she added.

 The scans were compared to those of 20 women who had never given birth, 19 first-time fathers and 17 men without children. Only the women who had given birth experienced a drop in gray matter volume.  

“It does make sense that a first-time mother is going to have to work really hard to understand their baby’s needs,” Kirstie Whitaker, an expert in neuroimaging from Cambridge University, told the Guardian. “They have theory of mind anyway, they are adult women who are capable of empathizing with others, but this is a new stage, this is like another step up in terms of understanding how another being is seeing the world,” explained Whitaker, who was not involved in the research.

“Brain changes may sound somewhat intimidating, but our findings suggest that there may be an evolutionary purpose to these changes that may serve you in some way when you become a mother,” said Hoekzema.

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture.