Research is continuing to uncover some interesting information about what happens to a woman’s brain during and after pregnancy that motivates her to nurture and protect a newborn baby. Dr. Lane Strathearn, a developmental pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas reports that recent research into brain activity in pregnant women can, in the future, provide new treatments for women with mental illness or those with abnormal brain responses to their newborns.
Strathearn said they are currently researching the possibility of giving oxytocin to new mothers who do not experience normal interaction with their babies. In a 2010 study, 19 women underwent brain scans while pregnant and shortly after giving birth. Study co-author Pilyoung Kim, a developmental psychologist at Yale University, said, “We observed small but significant increases in the volume of gray matter in the brain.” The researchers also found that one month after birth, women who were enthusiastic about caring for their babies showed the most brain growth compared to women who were less enthusiastic.
The postnatal period is a crucial time when maternal nurturing skills develop, and it is thought brain growth plays a part in the process. The brain regions responsible for emotion, reasoning, judgment, reward behavior and the senses were the areas that showed an increase in gray matter and included the hypothalamus, amygdala, parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex.
The women demonstrating a close bond with their babies developed bigger midbrains and growth in areas linked to maternal motivation, rewards and regulation of emotion. Although it is not known why the brain grows, it is thought that a rise in hormone levels such as estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin may influence growth. Oxytocin dramatically increases during pregnancy and the postpartum period. The more a mother nurtures her child, the greater the increase in oxytocin. Experts theorize that positive maternal behavior also releases dopamine, triggering a “feel-good” response prompting repeat behavior.
Child brain development may be influenced by mother
In a 2009 study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers separated mothers into two groups based on how close they felt to their own mothers. The groups responded differently to their baby’s faces. Those with a secure attachment responded to either a happy or sad face with a reward signal in the brain. The mothers in the insecure group, upon seeing their baby’s cry, registered brain activity in areas linked to pain, unfairness or disgust. Strathearn said, “Biologically, there seems to be a pattern that is repeated from one generation to the next; early experiences we have in childhood play an important role in the pattern of brain development.”
Future research can promote a better understanding of how early nurturing can affect a child’s social, emotional and physical development.
The therapists at Sovereign Health are cognizant of the link between brain and physical health. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches patients to become aware of their thoughts and the subsequent effect they can have upon their actions if not controlled. If you would like further information about Sovereign Health’s behavioral health treatment, please call our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Veronica McNamara, Sovereign Health Group writer
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