I distinctly remember 1 moment postpartum when my husband and I were in a bookstore, with baby in the carrier, browsing. I saw the book The Female Brain and picked it up, thumbing directly to the section on “Mommy brain,” and, more specifically, “Breast feeding and the Fuzzy brain.” I was still breast-feeding, fuzzy brained, and seeking some scientific proof that I wasn’t going crazy. I found it. Louann Brizendine, MD writes:
“…one down side of breast feeding can be a lack of mental focus. Although a fuzzy brained state is pretty common after giving birth, breast feeding can heighten and prolong this mellow… unfocused state…the parts of the brain responsible for focus and concentration are preoccupied with protecting and tracking the newborn.”
During this time, I would walk into the next room of the house to get something and forget what it was. Keys? Diaper bag? One of my husband’s friends, a Stanford scientist with two children, explained: “You’re breastfeeding. Your brain will come back after you stop.” This fuzzy breastfeeding brain also explained why I felt physically connected with my baby when I went back to work. Brizendine writes:
Many mothers suffer ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when they’re physically separated from their babies, feeling fear, anxiety, and even waves of panic. It is now recognized that this is more than a psychological state but is a neurochemical state.
The longer and more often a baby suckles, the more it triggers the prolactin-oxytocin response in the mommy brain…Oxytocin dilates blood vessels in the mother’s chest, warming her nursing child, who also gets doses of feel good compounds in the breast milk…
Ah, Oxytocin, the bonding hormone. By 3:00pm at work, I would be physically and emotionally longing for my baby. I’m sure it was no accident that this was the time that I would pump milk for him and he would be having his afternoon snack! I remember coming home from work, checking in with the nanny on how baby’s day went, and she would say “he’s probably not hungry- just had a bottle about an hour ago.” I would nod ok, and then, as soon as she left, baby would lunge for the breast like a long lost lover and Mama would feel relieved and reconnected.
According to Brizendine, This lovely, feel-good state of oxytocin is turned on at the time of birth.
The mommy-brain transformation gets underway at conception and can take over even the most career oriented woman’s circuits…At the same time, her brain signals for eating, especially in the morning, become finicky as her brain is changing how it reacts to certain smells…she wouldn’t want to eat something that would harm her fragile fetus…That is why her brain is now overly sensitive to smell.…Progesterone spikes from ten to a hundred times its normal level … and the brain becomes marinated in this hormone, whose sedating effects are similar to Valium.
I wish I had had this book when pregnant. Sometimes there is no substitute for empirical, neurological data to combat shame and confusion. I remember sitting at my desk at work while pregnant feeling like I was in a mental fog and wondering where my focus had gone? Where was my motivation for work? I would sit there feeling like a hippo (I know, hippo is not a feeling- see previous blog), daydream about rocking chairs, and eat olives with hummus and crackers (My baby had a Greek craving theme). I could not tolerate perfume smells and threw up in the airport when walking through the fancy shopping section filled with expensive scents.
I was also studying psychological material for the EPPP (Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology: the licensure test for Psychologists) at the time, and confused about why nothing I was studying seemed to be able to stick in my brain. I would study material and then the next day it would have flown out of my mind. This was not very pleasant or ego syntonic for someone who had earned 4.0’s all through her undergraduate, Master’s and Doctorate degrees. At 7 months pregnant, I was scoring 50% on practice exams. Finally, with humility, resignation, some resistance, and a good dose of radical acceptance, I threw in the towel and postponed.
Why have 9,000 books have been written about
helping your baby sleep through the night
While oxytocin is a lovely feel-good chemical, drops in hormone levels mixed with lack of sleep do NOT feel good. I remember a mother in my brand New Mommy group telling me about how her baby slept through the night at 3 months. Bless her for her kindness (or perhaps it was discernment that the other mothers may have killed her) for not sharing this at the time. Every baby, like every person, has their own temperament, their own capacities, and their own preferences from the time of birth. I see this in my own child, a boy, who seems to be predisposed to fire trucks, dump trucks, dinosaurs, and things that go bang or boom. As a feminist, I would have ardently fought this Nature-Nurture debate prior to children. However, my little boy is naturally drawn to trucks, particularly those that dump things or make loud noises. Anyway, that is a whole other post (See http://www.scarymommy.com/boys-vs-girls/)
My baby did not naturally sleep through the night at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, or 12 months. That too, is a whole other post as well as bookshelves filled with thousand of experts offering their advice on how to get one’s baby to sleep. For the new Mom, though, lack of sleep can contribute to a fuzzy brain.
In a new mother, sleep is disrupted by repeated awakenings of the infant, but hormonal factors also seem to play a role. Immediately after childbirth, levels of the reproductive hormones, estrogen and progesterone, drop precipitously. It is believed that, because these hormones modulate neurotransmitter systems in the brain responsible for sleep quality, this dramatic hormonal shift may cause significant disruptions in sleep. (See MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health http://www.womensmentalhealth.org/posts/postpartum-depression-and-poor-sleep-quality-occur-together/ )
I remember going into work and hearing my (childless) co-workers say, “Gosh, I’m tired today.” Then they would sheepishly look over at me a moment later and say “Oops sorry” as I gave them the death stare. However, sleep-deprived states aside, there are other brain changes that can occur postpartum that are both beneficial and astounding.
Does the brain grow BIGGER postpartum?
Research from the American Psychological Association suggests this is the case.
Exploratory research…found that the brains of new mothers bulked up in areas linked to motivation and behavior…A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after [new mothers] gave birth showed that gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain. In adults, gray matter volume doesn’t ordinarily change over a few months without significant learning, brain injury or illness, or major environmental change. (Craig Kinsley, PhD and Elizabeth Meyer, PhD, Behavioral Neuroscience, October 2010)
I was sharing with a friend recently about the hidden gift of humility in needing to slow down on my desired accomplishments due to being a Mommy. She replied, “You are doing and growing more than most people I know, with or without children.”
“Oh,” I thought, “it certainly doesn’t feel like that.” I often tell my clients, who are recovering from eating disorders, that they are growing much faster than they realize. As they say in twelve-step recovery “You can’t kiss your own ear.” In other words, others will see your growth before you do. I certainly see that in my son. Sometimes it seems as if he has literally grown overnight. One day he is standing by the couch scooching, and then BAM! He is walking. One day he is babbling incoherently and then Bam! He is saying “Bump!” for Mr. Bump, and banging his chest for the gorilla. Where did my newborn go? And so, as I begin to let go of my Mommy brain fuzz (Hooray!!!), I am also letting go of my little breastfeeding baby (sweet sadness), toddling about, developing his own cerebral cortex and synaptic formations. (http://main.zerotothree.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ter_key_brainFAQ#changes) May the growth continue.
Linda Shanti McCabe, PsyD, works at the Association of Professionals Treating eating Disorders in San Francisco. You can learn more about her at http://WWW.DrLindaShanti.com