Pregnancy Changes a Woman's Brain

Hormonal changes may prepare pregnant women for motherhood

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) At no other time in a woman's life does she experience the massive hormonal fluctuations as she does during pregnancy. New discoveries show that these changes may be creating a "mommy brain."

The moods and hormones of pregnancy may actually be altering the mother-to-be's brain, perhaps to biologically prepare her for the unique demands motherhood and the needs of the baby.

"Pregnancy moods may be good preparation for motherhood."

Psychologist Laura M. Glynn of Chapman University and her colleague Curt A. Sandman of University of the California Irvine reviewed studies and literature about the links between a pregnant mother's moods, health and behavior, and her baby's psychological and cognitive development once it is born.

Using this data from previous findings about the prenatal environment, Glynn and Sandman filled in the gaps for better understanding of this critical stage in the lives of both mom and baby.

The two psychologists suspect that these hormonal changes help a woman prepare to be more attuned to her baby's needs and to be less rattled by the stress of being a new mother.

This theory would help explain why a mother often wakes up when her baby stirs, while the father sleeps on. It may also explain a common complaint of pregnant women, so-called "mommy brain," or impaired memory function before and after birth.

“There may be a cost” of these reproduction-related cognitive and emotional changes," says Glynn, “but the benefit is a more sensitive, effective mother.”

Evidence is also building that it is not prenatal adversity alone - for instance, maternal depression or malnourishment - that creates risk for the baby. Rather, congruity between life in the womb and life outside, after birth, may matter more. A baby whose mother adapts to changes and stresses in order to cope better seems to have enhanced cognitive development.

But the effect is two-way; a mother permanently affects her fetus, but the baby does the same for mom. Fetal movement raises a pregnant woman's heart rate and may prepare her for mother-child bonding. “Pregnancy is a critical period for central nervous system development in mothers,” says Glynn.

She cautions that these hypotheses remain untested, and that most research on the maternal brain has been conducted on rodents. Yet, a continuing study of the brain changes of pregnancy will enable both mothers and their babies to fare better.

The findings were published in the December 2011 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 28, 2011
Last Updated:
December 28, 2011