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Although new mothers may say they feel little but exhaustion and forgetfulness, their brains are actually growing in response to their new role, Yale researchers have found. A new mother's novel experiences can alter the anatomy of her brain, explains study author Pilyoung Kim, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist. "The brain is primed by hormonal changes during pregnancy and sensitized to changes in the environment—namely, the arrival of the baby."
The scientists, whose findings were published in the journal Behavorial Neuroscience, used MRI scans to examine the brains of 19 women a few weeks after childbirth and again three to four months postpartum. They discovered growth in areas involving emotion, reward, reasoning, judgment and the integration of sensory information. Interestingly, mothers who were most enthusiastic about their new baby were more likely than less-awestruck moms to have growth in the mid-brain regions that are important for emotion and motivation.
While the women studied were physically and mentally healthy, the brains of even depressed moms can benefit from caring for a newborn, Kim says. "If depressed mothers have the right kind of support, they can feel more positive and rewarded, and that will help their brains go through more positive types of changes."
These findings are different than "pregnancy brain," which studies have discovered is definitely real and can stay with you even after your little one is born.