Biochemical reactions are the first thing that you will notice once you become a mother. It isquite common for women in this period to change their behavior and mood.
According to artist Sarah Walker, mothering is a similar to finding a completely new room in the house where you are living for years.
There is no doubt that a lot of things are changing in the life of those who are close to the mother, but mothers themselves have to face some emotional changes too.
These changes appear to happen on a neurological level.
Pregnancy is directly affecting the structure of any woman’s brain even before she gives birth. Although this change was noticed since ancient times, only few years ago scientists were able to prove that. These changes in the woman’s behavior are directly linked to the changes that happen in their midbrain, prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes and few other areas in the brain. Even the grey matter becomes denser.
The increase of activity in the areas that are dealing with anxiety, empathy and social interaction can be easily spotted. It seems that these changes are happening for only one purpose – better attraction of the new mother to her baby. The feeling of protectiveness, overwhelming love and worry are actually happening inside the brain.
According to Pilyoung Kim, a maternal brain researcher, this behavior that lasts for few months after childbirth is very similar to the behavior of people suffering from obsessive compulsive behaviors. So, it is no surprise that about 16% of women are dealing with postpartum depression and a similar number of women can’t explain behaviors such as obsessively checking the state of their baby and frequent washing of hands.
What is interesting is that there is a huge difference in brain activity in cases when a woman is looking at pictures of unknown babies and their own baby. This is something that was researched by Society of Neuroscience.In addition, Mr. Kim says that the brain changes happen all over the brain and the most significant ones are the growth in brain areas that are regulating the emotions and empathy.
These brain regions don’t want to separately and there are few of them that affect and develop maternal behaviors.
The set of neurons that come in the form of an almond are especially interesting for international scientists working in this field. This set of neurons is also known as amygdala and it assists the processing of memory and it also triggers emotional reactions like anxiety, fear and even aggression. Amygdala is growing in the first weeks and months after the birth of the child.
Several studies have confirmed that this is the main reason why mothers are becoming so sensitive in this period and in many cases – overprotective. In case the amygdala is damaged, new mothers experience depression. Furthermore, this damage can have influence on the relations between the mother and her child too. The state of amygdala can also affect the feelings of the newborn and this is something that was confirmed in a Journal of Neuroscience study in 2004 where newborn monkeys were put on a test. It appears that infant monkeys who had amygdala damage had trouble selecting their own mother in a group of adult monkeys.
This is also the reason why mothers have positive brain activity when they look at photos of their own babies compared to photos of other unknown babies. This means that they had better amygdala response which reflects in fewer signs of depression and lower maternal anxiety.
According to Ruth Feldman, brain researcher, the changes in the new mother’s body are not related only to their brain activity because the hormonal levels are changing too. Oxytocin levels are significantly increased at the time of pregnancy and after childbirth. What is interesting is that these levels are increasing as the mother starts to take care of her baby. Oxytocin levels are growing every time a woman looks at her baby or hear their voice or try to help them fall asleep. These levels are on the raise during breastfeeding too and according to Kim this is the main reason why women are more sensitive during this activity.
These changes and processes in the brain and hormonal levels are very similar to the ones found in people who are falling in love.
This is probably the first thing you will hear from new parents that have seen their baby for the first time too. Feldman says that the increased activities of the amygdala and dopamine levels are the reasons why parents (especially the mother) are so happy about their newborn. This is also the reason why mothers believe that their babies smell especially good and this was confirmed by a study conducted in 2013.
But, it is not just the new mums that experience changes in their brains, men who are involved in the entire process can have them too. However, these changes are not triggered by the same thing. A study conducted last year by Feldman and some other scientists have shown that these changes in men are related to the development of the so-called socio-cognitive network while women experience changes in the hormone levels too.
Women have this potential even before they give a birth and you can tell that by their reaction when they are involved in care giving for other babies.
Although scientists have found answers to some question regarding maternal behavior, the truth is that there is a lot more that they need to research because they still cannot explain the evolution and how did all these things started in the first place.