As far as our brains are concerned becoming a parent is just like falling in love
Falling in love

Here’s something that might just blow your mind. Scientists have discovered that becoming a parent is a LOT like falling in love. At least if our brain patterns are anything to go by.

Turns out those overwhelming feelings of empathy, anxiety and protectiveness that kicked in when you gave birth to your baby all started in your brain and increase every time you look, talk and snuggle with your baby.

A terrific article in this week’s The Atlantic magazine has described in great detail the neurological science behind the feelings we feel as mums, as well as some of our new behaviours. They’ve also pinpointed the exact section of the brain that accounts for everything we experience after giving birth – from how good our babies smell to the very common experience of postnatal depression. It’s called the amygdala.

Blame the baby talk on your brain

After we give birth, the amygdala grows. That’s the part of the brain that processes emotions like fear, anxiety and aggression and also helps new mothers become hypersensitive to their baby’s needs. Just by looking at her baby a new mother activates the reward centre of her brain.

The growth in this area of the brain is also said to account for a new mum’s development of obsessive compulsive behaviours such as consistent hand washing or checking the baby’s signs of breathing.  The amygdala is also responsible for the overwhelming desire we have to care for our children in the post-partum period (those hazy weeks after giving birth.) It’s also the reason we develop the sing-song language when speaking to our little ones.

Activity in the amygdala was also found to be the reason why mothers react more lovingly to photos of their own babies, versus babies in general. According to The Atlantic: “In a 2011 study of amygdala response in new mothers, women reported feeling more positive about photos depicting their own smiling babies compared with photos of unfamiliar smiling babies, and their brain activity reflected that discrepancy. Scientists recorded bolder brain response — in the amygdala, thalamus and elsewhere — among mothers as they looked at photos of their own babies.”

More time spent = more love created

I’ve always liked a line in the Penelope Leach book I was given after having my son that suggested the more time and effort you spend as new mum with your baby, the more fun you will have.  And as it turns out, there is a scientific explanation for why.

Apparently the more you touch, talk and look at your baby, the more of the hormone oxytocin is produced. That’s the one responsible for producing feelings of bonding. Ditto, when you breastfeed, according to Pilyoung Kim, one of the scientists who spoke with The Atlantic.

“Breastfeeding mothers show a greater level of [brain] responses to baby’s cry compared with formula-feeding others in the first month postpartum … It’s just really interesting. We don’t know if it’s the act of breastfeeding or the oxytocin or any other factor.”

It’s quite a ride for the first timer

According to the scientific research, first time mums will feel these changes most intensely and apparently there is very little proof that our brains ever return to how they were before childbirth.

Fascinatingly enough, although they’ll never produce oxytocin, first time fathers are also said to experience similar brain growth if they spend a significant time caring and interacting with their babies.

“Although only mothers experience pregnancy, birth and lactation, and these provide powerful primers for the expression of maternal care via amygdala sensitisation,” researchers wrote. “Evolution created other pathways for adaptation to the parental role in human fathers, and these alternative pathways come with practice, attunement, and day-by-day caregiving.”

Could there be a lesson in there somewhere?

This article was written by Lucy Kippist for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz

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