Having A Baby Changes A Mother's Brain For Two Years

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The brains of new mothers undergo structural changes that may help them provide for their babies' needs. Denys Kurbatov/Shutterstock

Maternal instincts may be partially caused by structural changes that occur in the brain when a woman gives birth, and which last for at least two years. Most of these alterations take place in the parts of the cerebral cortex that are involved in reading the intentions and feelings of others, and may therefore enhance new mothers’ intuition of their babies’ needs.

As part of a new study appearing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers used MRI to scan the brains of 45 women, 25 of whom became mothers for the first time during the study period, while the other 20 remained childless. They also looked at the brains of 19 first-time fathers and 17 men who did not have kids.

The women who became pregnant then underwent another scan shortly after giving birth. When comparing all groups, the researchers discovered that the new mothers displayed significant decreases in gray matter in the anterior and posterior cortical midline, as well as parts of the bilateral lateral prefrontal and bilateral temporal cortices.

These same brain regions were then found to become active when mothers viewed pictures of their own babies, but not when they saw other children, suggesting that these structural changes may help to increase their connection to their kids.