Pregnancy and the brain: How does it change you?

 

You might know how the relationship between the brain and the menstrual cycle, but what about pregnancy? With all the hormones surging through your veins throughout pregnancy, it’s no surprise that your brain function might change a little. Find out more about pregnancy and the brain below!

Pregnancy and the brain

Pregnancy and the brain

Do you have “pregnancy brain”? Take the test below to find out!

1. How often do you walk into a room meaning to do something, only to forget what you were supposed to do?
2. How often do you forget common, everyday things (Ex. forgetting to put on shoes, forgetting names of family members)?
3. How often do you feel overwhelmed?
4. How often do you feel frustrated about not remembering as much as you used to?

Pregnancy and the brain

As you already know, the brain gets flooded with hormones during pregnancy. During the first trimester, it’s common to feel a mix of happiness, anxiety, or even upset after an unplanned pregnancy. These feelings can intensify in the second trimester. And as you grow more uncomfortable in the third trimester, your feelings of anxiety might grow as well. For some mothers, these emotions can be more intense than usual, leading to severe anxiety or depression. And while some of the blame can be placed on the stresses of becoming a parent, we can also blame the hormones for changing the chemical balance in the brain.

But this all helps the mother to prepare for childhood by being less responsive to stress and more responsive to her child. Although it seems like all it does is change your cognitive function, it’s really helping you to be a more sensitive mother. For example, some studies actually show that when a fetus moves, the mother’s heart rate, emotions, and skin conductance increase, even if she’s not aware of the movement. A hormone, called oxytocin, also plays a major role in pregnancy. It helps to contract the muscles of the uterus during birth, and is actually used by doctors to slow down bleeding during birth. And during pregnancy, the hormone helps the mother feel calmer, get more sleep, and to get more nutrients, to help with her energy levels. Once the baby is born, oxytocin is released by both mother and baby, which helps to create a sense of euphoria and to foster the mother-child bond. Want to read more about the types of neurotransmitters?

Some women can experience what is known and “pregnancy brain”, which involves frequent forgetfulness. We could place some of the blame on the hormones, but only some studies show cognitive deficits during pregnancy. In fact, other studies actually show that pregnant women perform just as well as other women in cognitive tests. So what really is to blame? Well, while the hormones are preparing you for motherhood, it’s directing your attention away from things you would normally pay attention to. Combine that with worries about the baby, your health, and sleep deprivation, it’s a wonder you can even function at all! So the bottom line is, just because your brain feels a little “foggier” than usual, doesn’t mean you’re losing any IQ points. It just means that your brain is getting you ready to be the best mom you can be. Luckily, you can still train your brain with brain fitness programs, which will help you keep your cognitive skills in top shape throughout your pregnancy!

Pregnancy and the brain: Your brain after birth

The fogginess felt during pregnancy eventually goes away after birth. And while your brain is trying to rebalance its chemistry, it’s also directing its activity to places that will help you as a mother. For example, during pregnancy, activity increases in areas controlling social interactions, empathy, and anxiety. In the postpartum period, these changes are amplified by even more hormone surges. In addition, a mother will start to feel overwhelming emotions of love, protectiveness, and worry about raising a baby. You can see the crazy effects of pregnancy and the brain!

Some research has shown that there is growth in the amygdala and the hypothalamus. This helps with emotional regulation, survival instincts, and the production of hormones. This growth increases weeks and months after birth. This has been linked to mothers having a positive view and positive feelings towards their baby. It also allows a mother to wake up in the middle of the night when their baby is crying, without getting too frustrated.

Knowing about all of these emotional changes allows us to understand things like postpartum depression, obsessive compulsions, and anxiety. In fact, amygdala damage is associated with higher depression rates in mothers. Studies also show that reward centers (such as the thalamus and amygdala) in the brain actually light up whenever a mother just stares at her baby. This causes the attentiveness and the affection a mother feels towards her baby. But in depression, this activity isn’t as prominent.

 

 

How to keep your brain sharp- Pregnancy and the brain

All of these changes can be overwhelming, and it can add greatly to your stresses. Follow these tips to keep your brain sharp, and to keep you mentally healthy!

  1. Sleep deprivation can lead to much of the forgetfulness experienced during pregnancy. Not having enough sleep prevents the brain from focusing on caring for your baby. So the answer is obvious, get more sleep! This might seem like an impossible task, but getting at least 8 hours a night can really help you feel back on your feet. Fight the urge to be productive while the baby is napping and instead, opt to take a nap. And when the baby wakes up in the middle of the night, try to trade it off with your partner, so you feel less groggy in the morning.

  2. Write things down. Or more specifically, write everything down. Writing will help you greatly in trying to remember things. Not to mention, having everything in one place will keep you sane. Invest in a planner or notebook, and carry it with you everywhere, so you’re always on top of things.

  3. Try playing some brain games. Brain games allow you to use your cognitive abilities and stimulate your brain using specific training exercises. CogniFit offers a large variety of free online mind games, which are specifically designed to target your overall brain health.

Jessica is a student studying neuroscience and psychology. She is fascinated with all things people, from the way our brains work to how we think. She is always looking for new things to learn, and is eager to help others be inspired.