Neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema, revealed that during pregnancy women undergo significant brain remodelling that persists for at least two years after birth. The study also offers preliminary evidence that this remodelling may play a role in helping women transition into motherhood.
“Again and again, when you have a baby, you will find yourself acting without thinking. You will draw on maternal instincts, developing intuitive ways of holding, touching and making sounds that build the relationship between you and your baby” ( Stern 1998)
The research team, performed brain scans on first-time mothers before and after pregnancy and found significant changes in their gray matter.
Strangely, very little research has focused on anatomical brain changes during pregnancy until now. They performed detailed anatomical brain scans on a group of women who were trying to get pregnant for the first time. The 25 women who got pregnant were rescanned soon after they gave birth, 11 of them were scanned two years after that. For comparison, the researchers also scanned men and women who were not trying to have a child as well as first-time fathers. The researchers found that the new mothers experienced gray matter reductions that lasted for at least two years after birth and could continue far past that with more research. This loss occurred in brain regions involved in social cognition, particularly in the network dedicated to theory of mind, which helps us think about what is going on in someone else’s mind, regions that had the strongest response when mothers looked at photos of their infants. Hoekzema comments “the localisation was quite remarkable”. These brain changes could also be used to predict how mothers scored on the attachment scale. Gray matter loss was not seen in new fathers or non parents. There was no difference in the brain scans of women who had conceived naturally to those that had undergone IVF.
Gray matter is the part of the brain that performs tasks. The biggest loss of gray matter was in the front and temporal lobe regions, these areas of the brain are responsible for a variety of tasks, including social cognition (the ability to interact with others) They are the ones that help to understand other people’s feelings, beliefs, and nonverbal signals and also help form attachments to people. The researchers found that women who experienced greater gray matter loss also had greater feelings of attachment to their infants and also felt fewer negative emotions toward their babies. So while areas of the brain “shrink,” they became more powerful.
It is not entirely clear why women lose gray matter during pregnancy, but Hoekzema thinks it may be because their brains are becoming more specialised in ways that will help them adapt to motherhood and respond to the needs of their babies.
While scientists have known for some time how pregnancy affects the brains in rodent mothers, they’ve never had a clear understanding of what happens in humans until now.
“The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new.”
I can see they have highlighted medically what most women know to be true when going through pregnancy and postpartum, the downside is this is the only piece of research that has been tested on humans, this study was conducted in 2016 and ceased 2 years after birth of the infants, from my own personal experience I feel I can safely say that the effects will be longer lasting. There is a need for more extensive research to take place and with a wider field of women, women from all over the world, different cultures and backgrounds to compare, women who are surrogates and use surrogates and in adoption cases. They have indeed shown how magnificent the human body is that our brains change and we adapt to our child's needs as we are unable to communicate verbally in the initial few months. As with animals it's our brain that is being rewired and made more efficient to care and protect our newborn. Women often refer to “Baby Brain” and we’re perceived to be tired and run down but this study shows that there is a medical reason for all this and everyone should be made aware as it is a hugely transitional period for all mothers and parents to be. Having read the report my stance on the findings are that the correlation between pregnancy and beyond, and the changes in the brain that aid attachment and communication between mother and child are verified. There is no doubt from seeing this study and experiencing it myself that this is a natural neurological process and answers many previously unexplained phenomenon.
This new groundbreaking research will have a profound impact on the counselling profession, it has brought to light deeper intricacies with woman and the journey through pregnancy and motherhood.
With reference to the childhood hemispheric growth chart, this now ties in with why the mothers brain loses gray matter but in doing so it's having a “spring clean” making space for whats relevant. A baby is predominantly right brained until around 18 - 24 months communicating via body language, facial expressions and emotions, which is why all mothers have that sense of knowing what their child wants and needs, they are communicating from right brain to right brain, also cementing the attachment. The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences.
Winnicott’s (1960) “Good Enough Mother” theory is essential in helping women understand that there doesn’t need to be a perfect mum, this is unobtainable, following her own intuition and bond with her child, knowing when to back off and give the child more independence instead. Winnicott always argued that mothers knew better about the needs of her baby than experts. He suggested that there were, “very subtle things that the mother knows intuitively and without any intellectual appreciation of what is happening, and which she can only arrive at by being left alone and given full responsibility ”
In conclusion, having such a colossal adjustment within the brain, as well as the emotional and physical changes, understandably comes the feeling that mothers don't know who they are and have lost their sense of self. Counselling will hugely benefit the majority of mothers, before during and after pregnancy to assist managing potential depression, anxiety, burnout and generally feeling like you're the only one going through this. It shouldn't be just expected that we have this massive life changing event happen to us and carry on as “normal” as we once did before it's simply not possible and as much as we try we are not the exact person that we once were. Our whole person has changed and most of it has been done unbeknownst to us, with the study showing that there is a physical change in our brains will give greater understanding to mothers and everyone in the world of just how big of a job being a mother is.