Brain Changes in Pregnancy and Postpartum Explained

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Pregnancy and the transition to motherhood are times of profound change, not just physically but also emotionally. Many of us are familiar with the term “baby brain,” a light-hearted reference often used to describe the forgetfulness experienced by pregnant women. However, the changes happening in the brain during pregnancy and the postpartum period are complex and important when preparing for motherhood.

These changes are pretty fascinating. They help in strengthening the emotional connection between a mother and her baby, enhancing protective instincts, and even adjusting the mother’s ability to respond to her baby’s needs. The brain undergoes significant remodeling during this time to support these functions. Understanding these changes can provide valuable insight into the natural progression of becoming a mother and the challenges that can accompany this transformation, especially concerning mental health.

I hear pregnant women frequently talk about feeling angry, experiencing mood swings and tearfulness so I wanted to explore the nuances of how the brain manipulates and evolves during pregnancy and postpartum so we can gain a deeper appreciation of the natural preparation that equips mothers to care for their baby. This awareness can hopefully empower mothers and families to better support one another and recognize when to seek help if what you are experiencing goes beyond typical changes.

Understanding Brain Changes During Pregnancy

An important study by Hoekzema and her team in 2016 Nature & Neuroscience, conducting brain scans on women attempting to get pregnant for the first time. They scanned 25 women who succeeded in becoming pregnant and reexamined them shortly after they gave birth. Eleven of these women were scanned again two years later. To paint a fuller picture, the researchers also scanned men and women not trying to conceive, along with first-time fathers. During the postpartum period, they examined the new mothers’ brains while they gazed at photos of their babies, applying a standard scale to measure the mother-infant bond.

What they discovered was very important: new mothers experienced a reduction in gray matter that lasted at least two years after childbirth. But don’t worry, it sounds concerning but they found that losing grey matter isn’t a bad thing. The regions affected are involved in social thinking, particularly the parts that help us grasp what others are thinking. These brain areas lit up when mothers looked at their babies’ photos, and these changes could predict how the mothers scored on the attachment scale. Using these gray matter patterns, researchers even employed a computer algorithm to identify new mothers. Notably, this gray matter loss was absent in new fathers and non-parents. These results carry significant implications for new mothers. Alterations in brain structure may assist them in adapting to their new role and fostering a strong connection with their babies. This might explain in part why some mothers experience heightened empathy and emotional sensitivity during the postpartum period. Such brain function shifts can make it easier for mothers to understand and respond to their baby’s needs, making the early days of motherhood a unique and precious experience.

This remodeling in the brain seems crucial for attachment, enabling a mother to become more attuned to her baby’s emotional states. Improved recognition of the infant’s needs and heightened responsiveness also lowers the stress both for the baby and the mother. So although feeling emotional, tearful or easily frustrated doesn’t necessarily feel good and these changes might occasionally result in some forgetfulness or what many call “mommy brain,” they reflect the brain’s natural reorganization towards ensuring a secure and nurturing environment for the new arrival.

How Hormones Influence Brain Function

Hormonal changes during pregnancy also play an essential role in reshaping the brain. Hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and oxytocin are not just involved in the physical aspects of pregnancy but also influence mood, emotions, and cognition. For instance, oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” increases during pregnancy and peaks around childbirth. This rise in oxytocin enhances bonding behaviors and feelings of love and attachment towards the baby.

Estrogen and progesterone also have significant impacts. While estrogen boosts neurotransmitter activity and improves mood, progesterone has a calming effect, which can help manage stress levels. However, the dramatic fluctuations in these hormones can also make pregnant women more susceptible to anxiety and mood swings. Understanding these hormonal influences helps us appreciate why emotional support and making stress management a priority are critical during pregnancy, as they contribute significantly to both the mother’s and baby’s well-being.

Brain Adaptations During Postpartum

The postpartum period brings its own set of brain adaptations that are vital for adjusting to the demands of motherhood. After delivery, the rapid drop in hormone levels, particularly estrogen and progesterone, can result in what many refer to as the “baby blues”. This is a temporary state characterized by mood swings and emotional sensitivity, which, in the majority of cases, resolves as hormone levels stabilize. Additionally, the brain continues to prioritize regions involved in empathy, vigilance, and decision-making, ensuring that the mother remains responsive to her baby’s needs.

During these initial months, the brain’s ability to learn and adapt is high, facilitating the acquisition of new parenting skills. This neural plasticity is crucial in helping a new mother navigate the complexities of caring for an infant. The increased activation of the brain’s reward centers when interacting with their child also fortifies the emotional bond, helping to offset the fatigue and challenges posed by frequent caregiving.

Managing Mental Health with Brain Changes in Mind

Understanding the profound brain changes during pregnancy and the postpartum period can be empowering and reassuring for new mothers facing emotional health challenges. Recognizing what is part of a normal adjustment vs. what might be a sign of more serious issues like pregnancy or postpartum depression or anxiety is very important. It’s crucial to monitor these changes closely and seek help if feelings of sadness or anxiety become overwhelming and persistent rather than episodic.

If you are concerned about whether you are experiencing anxiety and/or depression please reach out for more information as it is good to have professional support as early on as possible. You don’t have to go through this alone and treatment is very effective. Regular check-ups with your OB/GYN can also assist in assessing mental health and proactively adjusting care plans. I am always willing to work with your OB/GYN so you have a team helping you.

Additionally, maintaining a supportive environment at home and in the workplace can significantly help manage stress and enhance overall wellness during this transformative phase. Therapy can improve your relationships by enhancing communication and understanding. If you would like to bring your partner to sessions to work communication and support, it can strengthen your connections and provide a solid foundation for parenting.

Whether you’re expecting a baby or have recently welcomed a little one into the world, it’s an exciting—and sometimes overwhelming—journey. One aspect that often gets overlooked is how pregnancy and postpartum can change your brain. In this article I  have discussed how normal pregnancy and postpartum brain changes, which include shifts in hormone levels, brain structure, and function, occur to prepare you for motherhood and can affect your mood and emotions. I am hoping that this article makes you feel better informed and helps prepare you for changes so you feel more empowered. It is also helpful to share this article with your partner or family members and I have included other articles below that I have written especially for partners. I have also included articles below about pregnancy and postpartum mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD and anger so you can see if what you are currently experiencing is outside of typical physical changes. I hope you find them helpful.

Dr. Sarah Allen

Dr. Sarah Allen has 25+ years of experience helping women to transition to being the mom they want to be. She is also the Director of the Postpartum Depression Alliance of IL, a non-profit she started 20 years ago that offers information & support to pregnant & postpartum women and their families. She has also published research on postpartum depression and traumatic childbirth and presented at conferences.

If you would like to work with Sarah, please phone her at 847 791-7722 or on the form below.

If you would like to read more about me and my areas of specialty,  please visit Dr. Sarah Allen Bio. Dr. Allen’s professional license only allows her to work with clients who live in IL & FL & the UK and unfortunately does not allow her to give personalized advice via email to people who are not her clients. 

Dr. Allen sees clients in person in her Northbrook, IL office or remotely via video or phone.

    What Can I Read That Helps Me While I Am Waiting For My First Appointment With Sarah?

    If you feel that you may be experiencing pregnancy or postpartum mood disorder, or worry that you may be at risk of developing it, please download my free booklets below.

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    Warm & Knowledgeable.

    I highly recommend Dr. Allen! She is warm and so easy to talk to. She has lots of knowledge about women’s health.

    Kathryn Gardner, LCSW

    Excellent Therapist!

    Dr. Allen is a colleague of mine and she is an excellent therapist. She is warm, caring, and exceptional at her work. I refer clients to Dr. Allen and I highly recommend her if you are looking for a top notch therapist.

    Jodi Petchenik, LCSW

    Sarah Transformed Our Family’s Sleep and Sanity

    My baby didn’t sleep. She wouldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours at night and no more than 30 minutes during the day. I was completely overwhelmed and my husband and I were at each other’s throats. I was supposed to be going back to work but was barely functioning. Sarah helped us to learn how to get our baby sleeping and then she supported me in my transition back to work. She also helped my husband and I navigate how to share childcare and running the house fairly. She is a very knowledgeable therapist and has really helped us.

    Pam. L.

    Dr. Allen Helped Me to Feel More Empowered

    Dr. Allen has really helped me find my own voice. When I began therapy I would swing between being passive and doing whatever other people wanted me to do to being angry and frustrated. I have been on antidepressants for quite a few years but it wasn’t really working. Through therapy I have learned to listen to my own needs and to speak up. I used to worry that people wouldn’t like me if I didn’t agree with them but when Dr. Allen gave me the support I needed I challenged my fears. I spend a lot less time feeling angry and depressed now and I have really widened my social network. This is how I have always wanted to be but didn’t know how to get there. Dr. Allen has a very reassuring manner and makes you challenge yourself but by using small steps so you feel ready to do it. I have really come out of my shell and would recommend anyone who is feeling depressed to come and talk with her.

    Rebecca F.

    Trusted & Knowledgeable Therapist.

    When I need to refer any of my patients for talk therapy I immediately think of Dr. Allen as she is wonderful at helping people with severe and complex issues really get to the root of their problems. She is very caring and knowledgeable and I have found her extensive experience really helps people to change their lives for the better.

    Dr. Teresa Poprawski

    Dr. Allen is an expert in treating perinatal mood disorders.

    I refer as many patients as I can to Dr. Allen. She is an expert in treating perinatal mood disorders, and a well-trained and experienced therapist who is committed to working with her clients to develop a treatment plan designed for each individual. She exhibits genuine warmth, kindness and compassion for each of her clients. Dr. Allen has been a colleague of mine for more than 20 years, and I have great confidence when I refer patients to her.

    Leslie Lowell Stoutenburg

    I become empowered and a happier person.

    I began seeing Dr. Allen when my first child was around a year old. I had experienced a very traumatic birth, after a difficult pregnancy where I was on bed rest for a good portion of the time. The first year of my son’s life was spent worrying constantly. I also experienced flashbacks to the birth, which was an emergency C-section under general anesthesia. My son was in the NICU for several days following his birth, and I was not given very much information as to why. I remember thinking that he would die, or that something awful was going to happen.

    I experienced a great deal of anxiety that first year, and I thought that it was due to being a new mom. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating as normal, and I remember being worried about leaving the house or taking my baby with me anywhere. I worried constantly about illness, germs, etc.

    The first day that I saw Dr. Allen, she gave me some questionnaires to fill out before we started talking. Then we sat down and talked about my experiences with my son’s birth and the early days of his life, and the year or so since then. I remember to this day the relief that I felt when she looked at me and said that I had PPD and PTSD, which was a result of the trauma I experienced during and immediately after the birth of my son. She explained how my brain had reacted to the stress of these events, and related it to why I was feeling the way that I felt. It made so much sense. Then, she described ways that I could get over the trauma, work through the feelings, and recover from PTSD and PPD. I felt so empowered, and so happy that the way I felt had a name, and that it was treatable. It also made me feel so validated in the ways that I had felt and reacted following my son’s birth. I wasn’t going crazy. My reaction was normal and natural. And with the help of Dr. Allen, and the type of therapy that she uses, I knew I could recover.

    It is over five years since that first visit with Dr. Allen, and I still use the tools that she taught me today to deal with stress. I credit her with helping me to become a more empowered, happier person.

    Elizabeth

    Overcoming PPD with Dr. Sarah’s Support

    When I had my first baby I had what I now know was postpartum depression but I didn’t get any help. It did go away after about 18mths but it was a miserable way to begin motherhood.  When I was pregnant with my second child I started to become depressed again and this time told my OB/GYN how I was feeling and she referred me to Sarah. By starting to deal with how I felt and change the way I was handling the stresses in my life, I was in a much better place when my baby was born. The second time round my PPD was much less severe and didn’t last as long. 

    Sarah was also really helpful in teaching me ways to make the transition of becoming a big sister easier for my oldest one too.   My husband came with me for some sessions and that really helped our relationship and we started working on parenting issues together.  Sarah’s counsel and support really helped our family transition to the good place we are all in today.

    Sarah C.

    If you are thinking about getting counseling and you’d like to talk to someone about the things that are troubling you, I am happy to help.