It’s almost Mother’s Day, and it seems a good time to reflect on what a wonderful thing motherhood is for the brain. There are all kinds of chemical and physical changes in the brain stimulated by being a mother — starting when the child is in the womb and then throughout the development and life of the child.

Nothing’s stronger than the bond between mother and child

Brain Changes in Pregnancy

We tend to focus on the obvious physical changes in the expectant mother, but there are also very large changes going on inside the skull. The brain is preparing chemically and physically for this nurturing period. The mother is growing attached to the baby even before the child arrives. 

Brain Changes When the Child Arrives

Upon birth, very special things occur that promote this attachment. It’s promoted by the physical connection of the mother to the baby. The mother sees the baby, smells the baby, hears the baby, feels the baby against her body — all of this is promoting the release of a neurotransmitter in the brain, called “oxytocin.” 

Oxytocin is like a “chemical assist” to something that will occur over the long term — that’s the connection in the mother’s brain between the self and this new precious thing as an extension of herself. Through thousands and thousands of hours of connections she grows this child into herself. And, if all goes well, for the rest of her life, they will be connected in a very special way as one.

Dr. Merzenich interviewed about how motherhood affects the brain

Brain Changes from Child-rearing

Of course, this process of attachment also grows over time between a mother and a child, even if the mother is not the child’s birth mother. You have a wonderful basis of attachment with anyone you regularly interact with in a positive and loving way. Even though you don’t get that initial heavy pulse of oxytocin, you can grow this attachment over time. It’s a lifelong process.

All of the mother’s contacts — both physical and emotional — produce the neurological changes that create the attachment.

Mommy Brain can be a Good Thing

Raising a child is full of novelty and challenge, which is good for your brain.

When caring for a toddler, you may be a bit neglectful of other things, because caring for this little kid is understandably number one. Some mothers may complain about being extra forgetful or being in a fog, and call it “Mommy Brain.” But, really it’s a wonderful time for the mother’s brain. It’s a time of enriched experience – dealing with all kinds of new challenges, elaborations, and rewards. It’s a time for brain excitement, driving amplified brain change.

Changes as the Child Becomes an Adult

As the child grows and becomes more independent (and even moves away), in most cases, the mother has already invested enough to maintain that attachment strongly throughout life. Sustaining that connection is enhanced by continued experiential interaction across life with your child, which you can nourish and grow.

Ideally, there can be that wonderful kind of co-dependence where the mother can be the child’s rock throughout life — that really reliable source, that place that even an adult child can always come home to. And, if everything goes well, the child also becomes a rock to the parent — someone mother can always look to as a source of strength and help.