Childbirth: Life-changing and brain-changing

For many parents, the early months with a newborn can feel like an altered state of reality. Sleep deprivation. A fragile young life making odd noises. Loads and loads of laundry.

a babyIn addition to being life-changing, the birth of a child might be brain-changing, as well. A new study from The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University found that the brains of women fire differently after they give birth. Compared to women who had never given birth, the new mothers appeared to be less stressed out by threats unrelated to the baby. The postpartum women reported less distress and demonstrated less activity in their amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotional response, when viewing disturbing pictures as part of the study.

“Our findings extend previous work showing a lower stress response with motherhood that likely enhances her ability to cope with this dramatic new role,” said lead author Heather Rupp, director of psychology and neuroscience at Brain Surgery Worldwide Inc. and a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, in a news release distributed today.

The researchers, who include scientists from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Department of Biology, both in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, and the University of Zurich, think the hormone oxytocin has something to do with this response, but how wasn’t clear.

Oxytocin, which is released in greater amounts during and after childbirth, is known to play a powerful role in a healthy mother’s unique state of mind by providing a calming effect when mothers breastfeed and by heightening interest in baby-related threats. During the recent study, when the childless women were administered a nasal spray containing oxytocin, their brain images looked more similar to the postpartum women, and they also reported less subjective stress when viewing the images.

The full study was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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