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Mom Brain: It's not designed to figure things out...

Updated: May 30's designed to support you to feel things out.

I had a teacher many years ago who said, we don't create, birth, feed or care for our babies with our heads...we mother with our bodies and hearts. And in a way, she beautifully summed up why so many pregnant and new mothers feel the way they do when they're trying so hard to figure something out...or when they feel forgetful or foggy or easily emotional.

Matrescence changes the brain, but our Western culture expects women to keep functioning the way they always have - thinking, doing, analyzing. So, instead of being curious about the natural physiological changes unfolding and the magic behind them, it's considered some kind of dysfunction or completely dismissed as "just mom brain".

Did you catch that? I said magic.

That's how I feel about matrescence as a maternal-infant health care provider who's witnessed it's wisdom in hundreds of mothers...and as a mother who journeyed through it several years ago. It didn't always feel magical as I experienced it. There were moments of awe and there were many moments of exhaustion and challenge.

Motherhood As a Neurocognitive Developmental Stage

Pregnant woman drinking tea on the porch

In recent years, the transition to motherhood has been recognized as a developmental stage. Just as children transition through adolescence to become adults, women transition through matrescence to become mothers. The hormonal fluctuations of pregnancy, postpartum and breastfeeding contribute to structural and functional neuroplasticity (brain changes!) and cognitive adaptations that enable mothers to manage new and demanding tasks alongside the development of strong bonds with their children.

Mom Brain: According to mothers.

During pregnancy and postpartum, mothers consistently report challenges with memory, concentration, fogginess, emotional sensitivity and absent mindedness. Does this feel familiar? Anything else you'd add?

Mom Brain: According to research.

Sketch of human brain

General cognitive functioning, memory and executive functioning are all reduced during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester, according to studies completed over the last couple of decades. These changes tend to be subtle and remain in the "normal range" of functioning and unlikely to significantly disrupt daily life.

And while there appear to be changes in brain scans after the birth of a baby (that remain for two years) and mothers continue to report impaired memory, researchers are not seeing that experience consitently reflected in their measurements of memory and cognition.

Why the discrepancy in postpartum research findings?

Orchard et al (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, March 2023) point out two key factors contributing to mother's experiences of "mom brain" not being seen in postpartum research measurements, like they are in pregnancy:

  1. Many studies have control groups containing women who aren't pregnant or postpartum BUT who are mothers who have previously moved through the neuroplastic changes of matrescence. Study results showing no significant difference between postpartum mothers and controls may be blurred by the long-standing effects of neuroplastic changes that occurred during matrescence. To get the most accurate look, control groups need to focus on including women who have never been pregnant.

  2. Many studies of peripartum cognition do not account or report for sleep, depression or anxiety outcomes - all factors that influence memory and cognitive performance in early mothering, but aren't measured in the research alongside measures of memory and cognition.

Mom Brain and the Nuances of Matrescence

Physical changes to brain structure and function are not the only things impacting a mother's brain in the postpartum period. Psychosocial-emotional changes shift her focus to the needs of her baby and away from memory and tasks unrelated to mothering. This involves one of my favourite hormones - oxytocin - more on that below!

And, the increased mental load involved in postpartum requires that mothers have more responsibilities while operating with fewer emotional and physical resources. Imagine what it takes to attend a social or family gathering:

  • The mental math and planning around naps and feeds can be hard when things are going well and exceptionally difficult when feeding challenges are part of the experience.

  • Consideration of who might be in attendance and the uninvited opinions or advice they'll offer about feeding, sleep or your approach to mothering

  • When it's time to leave, making sure you're bringing along everything you and your baby will need until you return home and ensuring baby is snug into the car seat safely.

All of this is added to meeting your own needs and exisiting responsibilities. As cognitive load rises, so too does the likelihood you'll forget something!

Oxytocin and Mom Brain

Oxytocin plays a pivotal role birthing (uterine contractions!), breastfeeding (milk release from the breasts) and bonding.

Increased activity in the area of the brain called the amygdala, stimulated by oxytocin, increases attunement - the ability to read and respond to the emotions and needs of others - which increases a mother's sensitivity and response to the needs of her baby. This is also true for primary caregivers who have not birthed babies - fathers, partners, adoptive parents. Remember, this parental superpower comes with a side of general emotional sensitivity, so remember to be gentle with yourself!

And ever wonder why, after really hard birth or postpartum experiences, many mothers choose to have another baby? Research suggests oxytocin plays a role in selective amnesia - reducing memories of the difficult experiences that unfold during matrescence, and favouring positive ones. It's a little bit of added wisdom from Nature, to ensure humans have more babies!

Mom Brain: It isn't all bad.

There is wisdom in "mom brain"...and an invitation to reconnect with our bodies and hearts during pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and postpartum. Instincts and intuition are available to guide us. And, when challenges arise, reach out to a trusted maternal -infant health care provider, lactation consultant or doula - someone you trust who can do the "figuring out" work for you and offer supportive strategies. That's why I do what I do - my magic is in looking at the whole picture, identifying the root cause(s) of your struggles and guiding you towards solutions that nurture the natural wisdom and processes, contained within your and your baby's bodies.


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