Anyone who has carried and birthed a child is familiar with “mom brain.” It feels like all of a sudden, you can’t remember anything. One day you can recite your childhood phone number, and the next day, you find your socks on the top shelf of the refrigerator. It is an absolute nightmare, but there is good news. Not only are scientists gaining a better understanding of mom brain, but it may actually be beneficial as you get older.
We know that much of motherhood is learning by fire. Because things can happen quickly and throw you for a loop, your brain needs to be able to keep up. As a result, it needs to adapt to make sure that you’re able to think on the fly. And that requires some structural changes of how your brain works, which could lead to mom brain.
“Providing appropriate care for growing children requires parents to rapidly learn skills and behaviours on the job,” Winne Orchard, Ph.D. candidate at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health said in an article on the benefits of mom brain.
We may not think of it this way, but our brains are changing while we’re preparing for motherhood too. Orchard and her associates call it “matrescence,” a “second puberty” similar to adolescence. Interestingly, the way our brains change during this time before motherhood is similar to the way it changes during adolescence. The fog of mom brain during those days is preparing our bodies to learn an entirely new set of skills. Of course that doesn’t make it easier when you do things like forget to take out something for dinner. But at least you know that it’s something that will be beneficial in the future.
In 2016, Elseline Hoekzema, Ph.D., a senior neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands and her coauthors published a study looking at how the brain is affected by pregnancy. They conducted MRI scans of the brains of 25 first time moms twice: once before they got pregnant, and again a few weeks postpartum. They found that the gray matter in their brains was reduced, and those pronounced changes lasted for a couple years. Among other things, the gray matter plays a part in processing memories and emotions and decision making.
Dr. Hoekzema explained to The New York Times that the change in gray matter may be a result of “synaptic pruning,” which is a “brain phenomenon that eliminates certain connections between brain cells to encourage the facilitation of new connections.” And while “losing” some brain matter may be inconvenient, it helps when you have to do things like take care of a newborn/infant. Professor of medical psychology at the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Catherine Monk, Ph.D., believes that the synaptic pruning is the likely cause of mom brain. So the brain is moving matter from the part of the brain that remembers what you had for dinner last week, and reallocating it to the part controlling “theory of mind.” This is also known as the part that helps you figure out other people’s wants and needs. Pretty crucial for having a baby.
“Throughout early motherhood, brain areas responsible for empathy and theory of mind – the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings or needs – are fine-tuned,” Orchard states. It goes on to add that theory of mind abilities are necessary and important. Those are the abilities that help us understand infants when they can’t really communicate. It seems this change happens to better support the behavioral duties of motherhood. The maternal brain volume changes are associated with “better attachment, more positive opinions about their babies, and more confidence in one’s own parenting ability.”
Well that’s reassuring, isn’t it? Sure, you may forget where you put your keys until you find them in the cabinet where the snacks are, but you will also be able to understand that your baby is constipated and needs a poo. It may seem ridiculous, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Brains are weird, but they do seem to come through in the clutch, so maybe this is one of those situations. It forgets the non essential stuff to make sure we remember the important stuff.
Motherhood is a lifetime job. But it’s one that is constantly evolving. And as a result, our brains need to evolve as well. We go from needing to understand our non-verbal babies, to being able to change diapers while we’re half asleep. Then we need to be able to balance soccer schedules, field trips, graduations and such. Of course thanks to mom brain we may forget to write down the date of the science fair, but they did remember that you need to bake for the bake sale. And that’s the normal part of mom brain. We forget the less necessary things in favor of the important things.
“We’re beginning to see that at this time, during pregnancy and the postpartum period, the adult brain is at its most plastic,” research associate at the University of Rennes in France, Jodi Pawluski, Ph.D., told The New York Times. The term plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rearrange itself.
For moms with more than one kid, it may feel like mom brain has permanently done major damage. But guess what? That’s not true at all. In fact, you will actually have a better memory when you get older. Monash Biomedical Imaging’s Cognitive Neuroimaging Team did an investigation of maternal brains later in life. In 2020, they looked at the maternal brain structure and function of women in their 70s and 80s. Those women who had more children had more “grey matter” in the area of the brain related to memory. They also showed “patterns of brain activity in the opposite direction to what we see in age-related decline.” Which means the more kids you have, the “younger” your brain function is. Additionally, elderly women with more children also have a better memory for words.
“To move forward, we need people to acknowledge the value and importance of the transition to parenthood,” Dr. Pawluski explained.
Think about how much changes our lives when we have kids, whether it’s your first or fifth. Having a child is always a transition, and it’s important to acknowledge that it changes us, even if we can’t always see it. Those changes make it possible for us to keep moving through our lives. Even though a lot of the time, it’s ridiculously hard, we surprise ourselves with our ability to adapt, right? And that’s because our brains are working really hard to give us that ability. It’s pretty amazing, and we need to step back and recognize that. Mommy brain feels like the actual worst thing. And it is sometimes. But that’s a part of parenthood — things are constantly being shifted to make room for other things.
It’s important to note that all of this research is still very much just research. There is no way to know for sure that motherhood is helpful when it comes to the brain later in life. But motherhood does for sure reshape how our brains work for the rest of our lives. Not just functionally, but physically as well. Those changes do have the potential to be incredibly beneficial once you’re older. So even though the science is 100 percent sure, there’s something to be said for the potential. It’s nice to know that all the changes our body goes through during our years of mothering aren’t terrible.