What Happens To Your Brain When You Give Birth?

24/04/2016 6:27 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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These days, when I arrive somewhere new with my toddler in tow, within 30 seconds I have scanned the area for potential dangers in a style not dissimilar to Robocop. Pre-motherhood, this information would have passed me by as I looked round the room for the most likely source of a glass of wine. Even if I had thought about the potential chaos a toddler could cause, it would have taken me a lot longer to draw the conclusions I access almost instantly now.

It turns out there's an impressive explanation for my new skills -- my brain has grown. I have evolved since I became a mother.

I first read about this phenomenon in Kate Figes' book Life After Birth and since then it has fascinated me. How do we know this? What does it mean? Could I use this time to learn Mandarin? Train myself to feel the same way about salad as I do about chocolate? What are the limitations?

There have been a number of studies of the female brain throughout pregnancy and after childbirth. Researchers found the volume of a woman's brain six months after birth is larger than pre-pregnancy and 'bulked out' in certain areas. You might think that this brain growth just provides storage space for the impressive new skills of mothering you have mastered, such as simultaneously jiggling a baby while drinking a cup of tea and eating sandwich, or making high-pitched nonsensical sounds while applying make up to your eye bags' bags.

But a whole range of other skills are actually improved as well. You're now like the bionic woman; better, stronger, faster -- rebuilt. Among these developed abilities is spatial awareness, presumably to reduce the number of times you accidentally thump your baby's head on a door handle, or to allow you to play car Tetris more successfully with the never-ending list of baby travel accessories.

Organisational skills are also enhanced, so you can meticulously plan all the engagements you are going to be late for. Also, cognitive performance is improved. This is the most impressive skill. I have a friend who can catch a falling glass before most people have seen it move... its like watching the Matrix.

It's not just practical skills -- there are certain areas of the brain which deal with stress and fear which are also affected, possibly making mothers more aggressive, more cautious and more anxious. Essentially, some of these changes can effect your personality and perhaps not just for the short term.

Where was this little nugget of information in my antenatal class or What To Expect When You're Expecting? Why did my bladder's and vagina's postnatal transformations get more attention than my brain's? "You might feel a bit hormonal, you might get the baby blues, oh, and your brain will be altered at a molecular level," did no-one ever say to me.

This exciting metamorphosis is thought to be brought about by the hormones associated with pregnancy and birth. These hormones stimulate growth, allowing your brain to adapt and learn in a way not dissimilar to a child's brain -- a feat which would be impossible at any other time of your adult life. It's amazing to think that the birth of your child is also quite literally the rebirth of you.

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