Menu

What happens to a woman's brain when she becomes a mother

Motherhood changes our brains and writer Chelsea Conaboy wants us to know that.

What happens to a woman's brain when she becomes a mother

It's no secret that becoming a mother changes you. When we find out we're expecting we also expect our lives, our sleeping habits, and our bellies and breasts to change.

The one place we don't expect change is in our brains, but thanks to a report in the Boston Globe Magazine, the word is out: The brain changes women experienced in pregnancy are significant.

So why is no one talking about this and how it impacts mothers?

That's the question journalist (and mother) Chelsea Conaboy sought to answer when she wrote her now viral article, "Motherhood brings the most dramatic brain changes of a woman's life."

You've likely seen in it your Facebook feed (and if you haven't, it's definitely worth the read). Mothers have been sharing the story online, posting it along with comments like "I'm not crazy after all!" and "I wish all new moms knew this." One mom simply just wrote "legit" when linking to the piece.

The comments scattered across social media prove that Conaboy investigation into maternal brain changes was needed. And it started because she needed these answers, too.

"It was such an important topic for me because it was something that was affecting me so deeply," she tells Motherly. "And that's how this story really began. I had this experience of basically heightened anxiety after my first son was born and I started looking at the research around women's brains and the transition to motherhood."

When she dug into the neurobiology of the maternal mind Conaboy learned that her anxiety was due in part to powerful maternal brain changes that are "intended specifically to help us do this job of being a parent", she says.

"It really was helpful to me to think of those changes as productive and empowering rather than something that impaired me," she explains.

“Neglected Neurobiology”

As Conoboy wrote for the Globe, "Women experience a flood of hormones during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding that primes the brain for dramatic change in regions thought to make up the maternal circuit."

Parts of the brain that help us multitask, empathize and regulate our responses to stimuli or threats are affected by this surge of hormones, she explained.

It's a really basic, beautiful and powerful change that takes place, as maternal brain researcher Jodi Pawluski told Conaboy, it's one of the most significant biological events in a mother's life.

Conaboy hopes her piece will help more mothers understand how powerful these brain changes are and believes that understanding what's happening to us may help moms reframe and reclaim our experiences, even (or especially) when the changes are impacting us negatively.

"I think we all as mothers or expectant mothers need to be really mindful that things can go wrong and that we need to seek help when that's appropriate and necessary," she says. "There's good, proven treatments and support systems."

A conversation worth having

Understanding how normal all this is can help women feel comfortable getting help, but also just feel more comfortable with what they're experiencing. It might make it less scary, not more so.

Conaboy says she's heard from expecting mothers who have thanked her for helping them prepare for how their mental health may be impacted postpartum, and also from mothers who are already raising children and are struggling, and have thanked her for just helping them understand why.

Until recently, many prenatal care providers were hesitant to address maternal brain changes with expecting mothers for fear of overwhelming patients, but in the wake of her story, Conaboy hasn't just heard from moms who want this information, but also from midwives and doulas who say they're already incorporating this information into their practices and don't find it's too much for patients to deal with.

"It can be overwhelming but I think that's true of anything that happens during pregnancy. Hopefully medical providers are really thoughtful about how they communicate with women," says Conaboy, who recalls how one of her sources for the story, researcher Ruth Feldman, explained that "just because it has to be handled carefully doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it."

Thanks to Conaboy, women are talking about it online and with each other, even if our prenatal care providers aren't yet leading the conversation.

You might also like:

An expectant mama's to-do list can feel endless… but here's the good news: A lot of those tasks are actually really exciting. Planning your baby registry is especially thrilling: You get a say in what gifts friends and family members will buy for your new addition!

But it can also feel a bit overwhelming to make sense of all the gear on the market. That's why we suggest mentally dividing your registry into two categories: items you need to prepare for your baby's arrival and items that sure would be nice to have.

Here at Motherly, our editors have dozens of kids and years of parenting experience among us, so we know our way around the essentials. We also know how mama-friendly the registry-building experience is with Target, especially thanks to their recently upgraded registry and introduction of Year of Benefits. Just by creating your baby registry with Target, you'll snag a kit with $120 in discounts and samples. The savings keep coming: You'll also get two 15% off coupons to buy unpurchased items from your registry for up to a year after your baby's expected arrival. Change your mind about anything? The Year of Benefits allows for returns or exchanges for a full year. And as of August 2020, those who also sign up for Target Circle when creating a baby registry will also get the retailer's Year of Exclusive Deals, which includes ongoing discounts on baby essentials for a full year.

Here are 10 items we agree deserve a spot in the "need" category on your registry, mama.


A crib to grow with your baby

Delta Children Farmhouse 6-in-1 Convertible Crib

First-time mamas are likely creating nursery spaces for the first time, and that can get expensive. Adding a quality crib to Target registry gives friends and family members the option to join forces to make a large purchase through group gifting.

$269.99

A safe + convenient car seat

Safety 1st OnBoard 35 LT Infant Car Seat

The list of non-negotiable baby essentials is pretty short, but it definitely includes a car seat. In fact, most hospitals will not allow you to leave after delivery until a car seat check is performed. We recommend an infant seat, which can easily snap into a base in your car.

$99.99

A traveling nursery station

Baby Trend Lil Snooze Deluxe II Nursery Center

It's hard to beat a good playard when it comes to longevity. This item can be baby's sleeping place when they're sharing a room with you for the first months. Down the line, it can function as a roving diaper change station. And when you travel, it makes a great safe space for your little one to sleep and play.

$99.99

A swing for some backup help

4moms mamaRoo 4 Bluetooth Enabled High-Tech Baby Swing - Classic

A dependable swing can be a real lifesaver for new parents when they need their hands free (or just a minute to themselves). Because many babies are opinionated about these things, we appreciate that the mamaRoo has multiple modes of motion and soothing sounds.

$219.99

An easy-to-clean high chair

Ingenuity SmartClean Trio Elite 3-in-1 High Chair - Slate

Our best registry advice? Think ahead. It really won't be long before your child is ready for those first bites of solid food, at which point you'll need a high chair. We like one that transitions to a booster seat atop an existing dining room chair.

$99.99

A diaper bag to share

Eddie Bauer Backpack - Gray/Tan

When you're a mom, you're usually toting diapers, wipes, clothing changes, bottles, snacks, toys and more. You need a great bag to stash it all, and if you're anything like us, you'll choose a backpack style for comfort and functionality. Bonus: This gender neutral option can easily be passed off to your partner.

$64.99

A hygienic spot for all those diaper changes

Munchkin Secure Grip Waterproof Diaper Changing Pad 16X31"

We can confidently predict there will be a lot of diaper changes in your future. Do yourself a favor by registering for two comfortable, wipeable changing pads: one to keep in the nursery and another to stash elsewhere in your house.

$29.99

A way to keep an eye on your baby at night

Infant Optics Video Baby Monitor DXR-8

Feeling peace of mind while your baby sleeps in another room truly is priceless.That's why we advocate for a quality video monitor that will allow you to keep tabs on your snoozing sweetheart.

$165.99

A comfortable carrier to free up your hands

Petunia Pickle Bottom for Moby Wrap Baby Carrier, Strolling in Salvador

A wrap carrier may be about as low-tech as baby items come, but trust us, this product stands the test of time. Great for use around the house or while running errands, this is one item you'll appreciate so much.

$39.99

A full set of bottles + cleaning supplies

Dr. Brown's Options+ Complete Baby Bottle Gift Set

Whether you plan to work in an office or stay at home, breastfeed or formula feed, bottles are a valuable tool. To make your life as simple as possible, it's nice to have an easy-to-clean set that is designed to work through the first year.

$39.99

Target's baby registry is easy to create from the comfort of your own home. Start your Target baby registry now and enjoy shopping with the Year of Benefits featuring exclusive deals available via Target Circle, two 15% off coupons, a year of hassle-free returns, a free welcome kit and more!

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.


Our Partners

14 toys that will keep your kids entertained inside *and* outside

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With fall in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in outside-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

$120

Detective set

Plan Toys detective set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

$40

Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

$75

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Shop

Cameron Diaz on having a baby at 47: 'You really have to work hard for it'

"The only pressure for me now is I have to live to be, like, 107, you know? No pressure!"

This is the decade that saw the face of first-time motherhood change. The number of first-time mamas under 30 is shrinking, while more and more women are becoming moms after 40.

Cameron Diaz is one of them. The actress and businesswoman, now 48, became a mom in January at the age of 47. In a new episode of Naomi Campbell's YouTube series, No Filter, Diaz opens up about what it's like to become a mom in your fourth decade.

"A lot of people do it the other way around ... they get married [and] have a family in their youth," says Diaz."I'm kind of doing it in the second half of my life."

Keep reading Show less
News