One of the first full-length movies I ever sat down to watch with my son was "Finding Nemo." I had seen the movie years before, so I already knew the storyline and that it was appropriate for my 3-year-old.
What I did not know was that less than five minutes in, my husband would walk into the living room to find me bawling and my son confused. After watching the first scene, which alludes to a predator eating Nemo’s mother and hundreds of her babies, I lost it. All of a sudden, a cartoon about a mother defending her baby fish was more than I could handle.
I wasn’t always this pathetic. Crying during any movie used to be rare, especially movies about kids, and in fact, seeing a child cry in public most often made me feel annoyed, not empathetic.
That all changed when I had kids of my own. As soon as my first son was born, it was like something in my brain changed, and any kind of sad story about children—especially children and their mothers—quickly turned me into a sloppy mess. I regularly have to turn off the news at any mention of children being separated from their families at the border, or during talk of school shootings, and I need a trigger warning if a movie I’m eager to watch has any sensitive content about kids.
Why did having children turn me into such an emotional wreck?
How Pregnancy Changes the Brain
As you might already know, when a woman gets pregnant, her body undergoes a series of changes that prepare her for pregnancy. What new brain research is starting to suggest is that a woman's brain also undergoes a series of changes with pregnancy that might help prepare her for parenthood.
Studies have shown that several regions of a mother’s brain change and even grow in the months following birth (Kim, Strathearn, & Swain, 2016). Importantly, the regions where the most change is observed serve important functions for parenthood.
For example, a group of researchers collected brain scans using fMRI from mothers before and after they gave birth to see if their brains changed in any noticeable way before and after having children. The researchers found that the structure of mothers’ brains did in fact undergo significant changes that were long-lasting—remaining for at least two years after the women gave birth.
Importantly, the parts of their brains that changed most were the ones that were active when the mothers were looking at pictures of their own babies. The researchers think that these changes might help women to be extra attentive to the emotional needs of their newborns (Hoekzema et al., 2016).
There is evidence that similar changes take place in fathers’ brains as well. Another group of researchers found that becoming a parent for the first time activates what they call a “parental caregiving network” in the brain, engaging areas most responsible for emotional processing, social understanding, and empathy. Importantly, this network becomes active in both mothers and fathers after having children, and while these changes were mostly biologically driven for mothers, for fathers, the amount of direct caregiving experience they had with their babies was related to how much their parental caregiving network was active (Abraham, Hendler, Shapira-Lichter, Kanat-Maymon, Zagoory-Sharon, & Feldman, 2014).
Further, there is evidence that changes in the brain following childbirth function not only to increase sensitivity to infants’ needs, but to also prepare the body to spring into action if something goes wrong. A recent study of over 700 mothers and their babies across 11 different countries showed that universally, mothers respond quickly to hearing their babies’ cry, moving closer to them and talking to them to soothe their distress. Additional brain data collected from three of these countries—the U.S., China, and Italy—demonstrated that regions of the mothers’ brains that prepare the body for action were activated immediately upon hearing their babies cry, for both brand new and experienced mothers (Bornstein et al., 2017).
So while becoming a parent can turn you into a sappy, emotional wreck, these emotional changes might actually be a really good thing, helping new parents become extra sensitive and quick to respond to their babies’ needs. Parental sensitivity and responsiveness are some of the main factors that predict a secure attachment relationship as the baby gets older, so these early changes in parents’ brains could help establish a foundation for the child’s healthy social relationships in the future.
Unfortunately, although changes in emotionality might be positive for parents in the long run, it might not always feel that way. In fact, changes in the body and in the environment that come with parenthood can also carry some downsides, possibly making parents feel overwhelmed and stressed. The brain reorganization that mothers experience during pregnancy has been associated with reductions in memory (Gynn, 2009), which might explain why new moms often feel forgetful or absent-minded. Hormonal shifts can also make mothers more susceptible to post-partum depression or anxiety, which spike in the weeks following birth.
How Mothers Can Cope with Cognitive Changes
To deal with some of the negative repercussions of “mom brain,” there are some things parents can do to make the emotional burden of parenting feel a little bit lighter.
1. Don’t stress.
One of the side effects of feeling a bit over-emotional might be stress and anxiety, and let’s face it, parenting is stressful even without forgetfulness and the emotional ups and downs. Stress can lead to negative health outcomes for the parent, including short-term physical issues like stomach pain and headaches, along with more serious long-term problems like high blood pressure and heart disease.
On top of that, children of anxious parents are at increased risk of developing emotional problems themselves (O'Connor, Heron, Golding, Beveridge, & Glover, 2002; Van den Bergh & Marcoen, 2004). So finding ways of reducing stress whenever possible can be beneficial for both the parent and the child.
2. Take a nap.
One of the inevitable lifestyle changes that come with having a baby is lack of sleep, especially during the first six months following birth. Unfortunately, like anxiety, sleep deprivation can also have negative effects on both the body and the brain, and research suggests that even just a moderate amount of sleep deprivation has effects that look similar to being drunk (Williamson & Feyer, 2000).
When you have a new parent who is feeling a bit emotionally burdened, you can imagine that mixing in lack of sleep might make those big feelings feel even bigger and harder to cope with—so trying to get as much rest as possible, when possible, is important.
3. Get help.
Extreme shifts in emotionality, especially those associated with post-partum depression, might mean getting some help from family, friends, or even a doctor. There’s evidence that social support—or having loved ones around you—can help mothers cope with the transition to parenting, and can help with stress and depression more generally.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to take that helping hand whenever it’s offered. Even though your body and brain might be helping you prepare for parenthood, having lots of bodies and brains around to help you cope can be a great thing, especially when you’re feeling like an emotional wreck.
Abraham, E., Hendler, T., Shapira-Lichter, I., Kanat-Maymon, Y., Zagoory-Sharon, O., & Feldman, R. (2014). Father's brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 9792-9797.
Bornstein, M. H., Putnick, D. L., Rigo, P., Esposito, G., Swain, J. E., Suwalsky, J. T., ... & De Pisapia, N. (2017). Neurobiology of culturally common maternal responses to infant cry. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(45), E9465-E9473.
Glynn, L. M. (2010). Giving birth to a new brain: hormone exposures of pregnancy influence human memory. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(8), 1148-1155.
Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García-García, D., ... & Ballesteros, A. (2017). Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience, 20, 287-296.
Kim, P., Strathearn, L., & Swain, J. E. (2016). The maternal brain and its plasticity in humans. Hormones and behavior, 77, 113-123.
O'Connor, T. G., Heron, J., Golding, J., Beveridge, M., & Glover, V. (2002). Maternal antenatal anxiety and children's behavioural/emotional problems at 4 years: Report from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180(6), 502-508.
Williamson, A. M., & Feyer, A. M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and environmental medicine, 57(10), 649-655.
Van den Bergh, B. R., & Marcoen, A. (2004). High antenatal maternal anxiety is related to ADHD symptoms, externalizing problems, and anxiety in 8‐and 9‐year‐olds. Child development, 75(4), 1085-1097.