From woman into mother: the real meaning of baby brain

Now my little girl is approaching three, I’ve finally had the space, time and curiosity to look back and wonder just what has changed for me and what triggered those changes. I’d spotted some really big differences in myself and had never thought deeply about it – I mean who has time? I was busy thinking about my thin hair and wondering why my girl is only eating pear today.

And then a whole load of new writing and podcast content broke through into my media space and finally the penny dropped. The hormonal changes that took place in pregnancy and the first two years of motherhood, have done their intended job. My brain has been rebooted to ensure survival of the species.

Yes, we all know the jokes about baby brains, and if you’re mum, you’re probably aware that your brain doesn’t quite operate the way it used to – although any parent of young kids can testify that a good few years of sleep deprivation can leave you feeling wooly to say the least.

Although recently there has been renewed interest in the changes that motherhood brings in the cultural zeitgeist, mainly triggered by Alexandra Sacks MD when she gave her 2018 TED talk “A new way to think about the transition into motherhood” and brought the term matrescence back into modern awareness.

She describes that in her practice in the US, she would see mothers assuming that they were suffering from postpartum depression. They had such mixed emotions and reported feeling so unstable, so not like themselves, that there had to be a medical diagnosis that fit their condition. But no Sacks says, it was ‘just’ matrescence.

The term was first coined in the 1970s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael (who also introduced the term ‘doula’ to the world) to describe the developmental transition that mothers go through and the similarity to adolescence is no accident – it’s just as whole body as puberty: hormonal, emotional, physical and your brain is permanently changed as a result. You lose control of how you look and how your body is behaving just at a time when your emotional state would make it really helpful for you to be able to appear in public without feeling a wreck.

The really interesting thing is that for adolescents, perhaps because all of us have to go through it, there’s still a lot of social empathy for that difficult time. We understand that your teenage years might not be the best of your life and many people report their 20s being better. We refer to it as a phase, society adjusts it’s expectations and there is good knowledge out there that means that although it’s tough, it’s supported and understood. A slightly cynical part of me wonders that if men had such an extensive second adolescence, we could be sure we would all know about it.

I’ve been reading a scientific paper, published early 2019, by a group of Spanish researchers who mapped the changes to the human brain in pregnancy and beyond. They found and could unequivocally show that pregnancy leads to significant and long lasting reductions in the amount of cerebral grey matter mothers have. They then compared these brain changes to those of girls undergoing adolescence and found them to be essentially the same. The hormones that drive the changes are different (oxytocin, oestrogen, progesterone and prolactin for mums; oestrogen and progesterone for girls) but they drive incredible neuroplasticity, a state under which our brain can undergo massive change driven by the needs of our daily environment. The huge amount of interaction women have with their babies during this state of plasticity sets lasting change in motion: we literally reshape our brain to become better adapted to caring for a little one.

Teenage girls experience the same neuroplasticity, causing the changes to behaviour and perhaps eventually personality, if this pruning and regrowing moves far enough away from the old brain structure.

Interestingly, the average time it took the teenage girls to pass through their adolescence was 24.2 months. For mothers, it was 15.5. This caught my eye. At first glance I thought that teenagers must have it harder, their transition period takes longer and they have this period for hormone driven instability for 8 months more. But then I thought about it a bit more. Maybe the correct way to look at it is that mothers have 8 months less to complete this monumental change. It’s compulsory too: we must complete it in order to come out of our post partum period.

It made me think about the mothers that Sacks described, battling this huge developmental shift, as momumental as changing from an teenager into an adult, all the while not expecting it themselves, while society isn’t allowing for it, on nowhere near the amount of sleep teenagers have and all in 8 months less time. Is it any wonder her mothers reported feeling like they did? That they wondered if they had tipped into depression?

I for one can tell you that I’ve changed. Hugely. The centre of my world has moved as I knew it would, as I knew it should, but other things, unrelated to our daughter have changed too.

I’ve become much more outspoken and I’ve become much more likely to defend my daughter or myself from what I see as injustices. Be it inconsiderate people on public transport (a fair few here in London) to the current politics (let’s not even get started on Brexit) or how women are still unfairly positioned in our society (hello capitalism and patriarchy), I’m quicker to jump in. Perhaps I’m much less tolerant now I have to consider the world she will inherit. Maybe I’m less patient. Maybe I care much less about what people think of me. Perhaps shades of the teenage me have returned.

But it’s other things too. Things I think my pre-pregnancy self might even have mocked.

I can’t cope with violence on TV or in movies, not even a little bit. My music tastes have done a u-turn with the french electro house I used to stay up to 5am to listen to, now firmly off rotation. Folk and indie now are on Spotify as we play.

Now I crave greenery, not the city. I’m much more about a cabin in the woods with a herb and vegetable garden, maybe even an orchard, than a small but cute top floor Camden flat. I dress differently too. A less glossy version of me has come out. Where previously I was all about slick grooming, straight hair and minimal outfits, I’m leaning now towards natural curls, full skirts and sheepskin lined birkenstocks. Honestly, I would have laughed at myself only five years ago.

It’s often felt to me that the force of change was so immense, so all encompassing, so unexpected, that so many aspects of my personality disappeared for a bit. So many of the things that I used to value (hobbies you might say) just ceased to be. I think it’s fair to say that it’s only been recently, perhaps not even after 15.5 months, maybe 28 months, that I’ve been starting to feel anything like myself again. How reassuring to know that I wasn’t gone forever.

I’m so interested in these changes, that I plan to keep following this type of work and thinking. How much more fascinating insight into this previously unstudied area is there still to uncover?

I’ve now started to wonder whether the variance in how women manage their matrsensece and how they then adjust to their brain changes factors into the choice to have a second child, the if as well as the when. It feels as if you need to come back to a sense of self and find a new sense of normal before you can consider making another change, before you can consider another shift.

Now, looking back on it, it doesn’t surprise me that this concept, this phenomenon isn’t widely known. Like so much else that would help mothers, this information isn’t out there: it’s not taught and it’s not spoken about. This all to common feeling of disconnect, the feeling that it must only be you, the worry that it really is only you who is experiencing it, could be so easily avoided.

How crazy is it that we don’t give women the chance to understand how momentus this time of matrescence could be for them and how they could embrace this rebirth? I too felt like I was losing myself and losing the plot. If someone had told me the best parts of me would resurface and that it might be a two year period of change that would rival my teenage years, I might have been able to trust the process. I hope that I could have been less controlling, that I could have gone with the flow – although knowing the old me, I might still have tried to manage it.

One interesting question: who will I be if we go for two or three? :-)

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Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

Reference: Carmona, S., Martínez‐García, M., Paternina‐Die, M., Barba‐Müller, E., Wierenga, L., Alemán‐Gómez, Y., Pretus, C., Marcos‐Vidal, L., Beumala, L., Cortizo, R., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García‐García, D., Soliva, J., Tobeña, A., Peper, J., Crone, E., Ballesteros, A., Vilarroya, O., Desco, M. and Hoekzema, E. (2019). ‘Pregnancy and adolescence entail similar neuroanatomical adaptations: A comparative analysis of cerebral morphometric changes’. Human Brain Mapping, [online] 40(7), pp.2143-2152. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hbm.24513 [Accessed 7 Feb. 2019].

5 amazing things our body does during pregnancy

Sometimes it feels like trust in birth is at an all time low here in the UK. Every week there seems to be a news item that gives parents to be new guidance, and none of it is good. There might be an article covering research that shows that labour should be induced at 39 weeks or another TV report that tells us that staffing levels are at an all time low.

The overall message for a nervous mum to be? You should be worried about what you’re about to experience. You’ll need all the help you can get.

This makes me so sad. Honestly it does. It’s like setting ourselves up for a massive fall. If you start your birth from a place of fear, that can only get worse as labour progresses. And why start there? What purpose does fear serve? For any of us?

So instead, to balance this less productive mindset, let’s consider 5 amazing facts about our wonderful bodies that show just how incredible they really are.

1. Super woman levels of oestrogen

A pregnant woman makes more oestrogen during her pregnancy than she does in the rest of her life. Oestrogen is the growth hormone. During the first trimester it helps grow the placenta, improves the transfer of nutrients through the umbilical cord and fuels the very rapid development of the tiny foetus. Later in pregnancy, you’ll see it’s wonderful effect in your strong nails, glowing skin and lush hair. It literally makes everything renew and flourish.

2. If you have a girl, you’re carrying two generations

You may not have thought of this incredible fact before. Are you over thirty? Perhaps you might have heard the slightly depressing fact that women are born with only a certain number of eggs then. You have all you will ever have when you’re born. Flip this around though, as I do now, and consider instead that if you have a little girl, you have also just been responsible for growing your grandchildren. Of course, she will have to decide to have them, but they are there all the same! Tiny eggs in her tiny ovaries, waiting to grow and ripen.

3. Your brain becomes more like a mother’s

As any mother can attest, your brain really does rearrange itself to adapt to its new role. Somehow, from somewhere, you find some superpowers which give you the ability to remember all the doctors appointments, pack baby bags each day and still manage to eat/wash/talk to non parents. The other incredible thing? Your brain prunes away the clutter it doesn’t need to allow you to become more empathetic, a change which will never reverse. Baby brain doesn’t sound so bad after all.

4. Your baby will let you know when it’s ready to meet you

As babies are growing in the womb, their lungs are full of amniotic fluid and they breathe through the placenta and umbilical cord. As they have this support system in place, they can prioritise developing all the other bits of their body before they need to be able to breathe air by themselves. Around about 32 weeks, as their lungs are completing their growth, they begin produce a chemical called a surfactant – essentially what we all have in our lungs that stops them collapsing as we breathe. Scientists found out that this surfactant chemical is what provides the signal to the mother that the baby is ready. When it accumulates to a high enough volume, it acts as a signal that labour can start, usually from 36 weeks onwards.

5. Boys and girls receive different compositions of breast milk

True fact! Milk for girls is higher volume with more glucose and calcium. Milk for boys is lower in volume with more fat and protein. Researchers also think that hormone levels differ too which would make a lot of sense. Right from the beginning boys receive more cortisol and growth hormone, fuelling their larger physical frames.

And finally: Dads’ hormones change too

Just before a new baby arrives Dad’s testosterone levels drop and prolactin (a natural bonding hormone as well as the one that produces milk) is increased. One theory is that it prevents men looking for a new partner and instead prompts them to look after their current one and new family – plus cope better with the potential short term lack of sex… not bad hey?

Looking at this list, I find it really hard to believe that anyone could think that nature doesn’t have our back and that our bodies haven’t been designed to be anything other than amazing. Of course, it’s brilliant that we can access full medical care when we need it but, women, we can really afford to be proud ourselves too.

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This post was written for and first appeared on The Natural Parent Magazine.

Don’t leave your birth plans to chance

Lately in the UK (or in the group of parents to be and parents that I know anyway), there has been a shift away from planning your birth experience. A lot of mums-to-be especially have said to me that there’s “No point planning for what you can’t control” or that “If I don’t make a plan, I can’t be disappointed”. I should mention a deeper interest here: I teach parents to be about birth for a living – but I’m also a parent and even before I had learnt more about care during labour, I still felt strongly that being engaged in the process would lead to a better outcome.

I would urge any expectant parents to plan for their birth as carefully as possible. After all, many parents spend a lot of time choosing items for their baby’s nursery or their pushchair. I would argue that birth plans are just as good a use of that time.

Whatever you choose to call this plan, it’s worth it

When I teach, I have to be realistic. Not every mother is the same, not every baby will behave as expected, not every birth will follow a particular path. We’re all individuals with different medical backgrounds, different hopes and different bodies. That’s fine. Wonderful even. Conformity is not the point.

I try very much to help parents reach a point where they understand that the birth experience they have, as long as they feel like they understand what happened and why certain choices were made, will absolutely be the right one for them. I would argue that engaging with your caregivers and the information they are giving you so that you can make decisions from a position of focus and knowledge is much more likely to help you feel happy with your birth.

It’s absolutely correct to not be overly attached to your original wishes. They can add an extra layer of stress and tension to what can already feel like a fairly pressurised situation. This shouldn’t stop us from trying for what we hoped for though so use the words that feel right. Birth plan, birth preferences, birth proposal – what really matters is that you’re expressing your wishes.

Making plans together is critical

One of the major benefits of couples taking antenatal classes together and then reflecting on the information afterwards, is that they do it together. This might sound obvious but it’s often not that straightforward. For a birth partner to defer to his partner’s wishes might sound like the ideal but actually, this birth partner might need to be able to explain these choices, to advocate for them and to protect the mum’s birth space. To do this well, it’s essential that both of the couple are as equally well informed and know how the other feels about the choices made.

Mum might want to make sure that not too many people are in the room; the birth partner might not want to cut the umbilical cord. To get a chance to know this about each other, they will need to talk about making a plan and potentially consider the options available. Again, this sounds obvious but it’s a weight off mum’s shoulders to know that the choices are understood then can be protected by someone else and hopefully the birth partner will feel empowered to take a more active role in the birth.

Your caregivers will know what you want

This sounds so simple when I say it but it’s true. If you don’t make a plan and let people know what you’d like to happen, how will they know?

Birth professionals like midwives and obstetrics doctors meet a lot of parents and deliver a lot of babies. Although it would be great if they remembered all of us individually, it’s not likely even if you were definitely going to see the same carers the whole way through. By not making your plans clear, you’re leaving a lot to chance. And why would you want to do that?

Step off the standard pathway

All medical institutions have what are known as standard pathways of care. They are planned out by the heads of the obstetrics and midwifery departments and they follow the principles of defensive medicine. Defensive medicine is exactly what you imagine it to be – assuming the worst case scenario and planning to mitigate that. While there is merit in this approach when something is actually going wrong, if you’re a mum who isn’t likely to need any medical interventions or assistance, the care you are offered can contradict your own plans.

If you don’t express your wishes, you’ll receive standard care and a much more negative approach. In fact, put the bits that matter most to you at the top of your plan, especially if they deviate from the norm.

Consider that you might need a back up plan

Having said all I have, as much as I believe in positivity and an open minded approach to care, I also believe in being informed.

Despite the fact that I was hoping for a home birth in a pool using hypnobirthing, my little girl was running late. She was also in a fairly unusual position for a baby who was looking like they wanted to make a break for it in the near future. By the time I was 9 days over, we were talking about c-sections – probably my very worst nightmare (although as Amy Poehler says “Good for her! Not for me!”) – and I was updating my birth plan to include my preference for a gentle c-section.

As much as I hoped for and visualised my ideal scenario, I found it easier to put aside my fear knowing that I’d covered all eventualities. It calmed me.

Our bodies are amazing and the power of our minds over them can have a profound effect. If you can take the time to plan, be true to your heart and set your worrying 4am mind at ease, you can write the kind of birth plan that any caregiver will be delighted to receive. After all, they’re in their job to support parents at this most incredible time. Make the most of your chance to have things your way – it literally is your moment of magic.

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This post was written for and first appeared on The Natural Parent Magazine.