Does pregnancy lead to a long‐lasting reduction in cerebral gray matter volume of the brain? Have you wondered?
Do your clients say they feel like they can’t trust their brain during pregnancy and early parenthood? Are they reporting forgetfulness, brain fog, or losing their memory? Or do they just leave their keys in the fridge or joke about needing to find their phone when it is in their hand?
As doulas and educators, we know that matrescence (the process of becoming a mother) is the physical, psychological and emotional changes experienced in the transformation after birth or welcoming a baby. This phrase was coined back in 1973, the same year the word “doula” was published to describe a birth and postpartum support person–and both by anthropologist Dana Raphael. Little did Dana know that we would someday be able to identify pregnant people just by their brain scan vs. the brain of those who had never been pregnant, giving even more credence to both the experience and the effect of matrescence. While “baby brain” is described by over 80% of women during pregnancy or early parenting, the new research indicates that indeed the brain seems to both prune itself, while new finding shows it also grows in plasticity.
Synaptic Pruning at work!
In 2016 a study was published that showed pregnancy involved a long-lasting change (for 2 years or more postpartum) in the analysis of a mother’s brain. The study used MRI to show the brains of those in their first pregnancy present significant reductions in grey matter in areas that control social cognition. Like adolescence, matrescence appears to use synaptic pruning, where weak synapses are eliminated allowing more efficient and specialized neural networks to grow. It is believed that these changes relate to the processes necessary to manage the challenges of new parenthood. The researchers also went on to find that the reductions in the volume of the mother’s brain were associated with a heightened responsiveness, particularly for their own babies.
Leads to enhanced skills!
New studies from 2020 are showing shifts in the brain that occur during pregnancy support the emergence of new maternal behaviors. These researchers have demonstrated that relative to those who haven’t been pregnant, enhanced retention in spatial memory was shown as well as increased initial learning about parenting-relevant activity. So cognitive improvements are being seen during pregnancy that enhance the parents’ skills. This both contradicts and explains the experience of “mommy brain” that many of our clients describe, as some areas of the brain are shrinking to make room for connections that attune the parent to their infant.
This study also noted that baby cues are associated with powerful reinforcement that motivates maternal care. This is believed to be mediated by dopamine release into the brain’s reward system. Any parent can tell you the thrill they feel when they connect with their baby, read a cue correctly, meet their need, and especially when they are able to calm and comfort their new baby! These findings provide the first indications that the transition to motherhood renders anatomical adaptations that promote the strong responsiveness of mothers’ reward circuit to cues of their infant.
Adolescence and matrescence further linked
Just like adolescence changes the young female brain, matrescence seems to reduce the volume of the brain of first-time mothers, particularly in regards to preparation of future environmental demands. Finding little difference between the brain scans of girls going through adolescence and grown women going through matrescence, this suggests that hormonal priming activates a new state of neuroplasticity. New parents are learning at a rapid rate (as their babies are!) and the brain in pregnancy seems to be making these preparations for the space needed to nurture and care for the coming tiny humans they are creating.
Keeping these changes in mind will be helpful to planning for mental health support, as both adolescence and matrescence are sensitive times of increased mental health risk due to the massive transitions experienced in each stage. While we have known this about adolescence for years, we are just now starting to learn that the shift to motherhood has a similar impact on brain function, and we can now start putting into place these new findings to protect and support new parents!
How can we use this as doulas and educators?
Parents will welcome information about the upcoming changes ahead, that they may indeed lose track of things, but that this adjustment will allow their brain to connect and nurture their little ones in a more sensitive and responsive way! That their brain is forging new pathways to become an expert on their baby! We can also support new parents and remind them that their brain is doing important work that will set them up for years of successful parenting—and that this is a good time for extra care and support!
Being a doula and educator post-pandemic, the research that is coming out is helping to make the future, very bright. Learning about the brain will hopefully fuel changes in care for pregnant and postpartum people, particularly in the areas of mental health and social support. It is a great time to be in the perinatal health field and I hope insurance companies will be listening so they can start to cover the vital support that postpartum parents need.
About the Author
With a passion for the new family, Kimberly has been serving pregnant and postpartum families since 2001, first as a postpartum doula, then adding classes at a local hospital, then becoming a Lactation Consultant. She founded a ABC Doula & Newborn Care in Portland, OR and has seen it grow to serve over 2500 families, including 700 families with twins or triplets. She has a passion for newborns and their families, as well as new doulas and educators launching into their own businesses. She has been Faculty for CAPPA since 2005 and now trains Postpartum Doulas, Lactation Educators, New Parent Educators and her own advanced program for doulas, NCS and nannies called Working with Multiples, equipping caregivers to work with beloved twins and triplets.
With 2 decades in the industry, she has continued to evolve as an educator, incorporating online classes and virtual trainings, and innovating new activities and learning approaches along the way to keep engaging her students so their educational time can be fun and dynamic. Kimberly is the mother to two grown kids, and enjoys the collaboration at home and work with her husband of over 25 years. She also teaches Breastfeeding, Newborn Care, and Twins and More classes within the Providence Health System, teaching both virtually and in person, and facilitates two moms groups for parents creating community around the early parenting journey. Kimberly has also produced 2 instructional videos for educators and new parents covering swaddling approaches and connected infant bathing. She’s seen the world change since the pandemic, opening up awareness of mental health and social justice, and seeing the doula world explode…something she has been working towards for 20+ years! Her joy centers around making a difference for new parents, new doulas, and her community and changing the world one family at a time.