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Pregnancy leads to brain changes that help mothers care for their babies

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For two years after giving birth

Sara Neff/Flickr

Pregnancy changes women’s brains in ways that help them bond with and care for their babies, new research shows. These changes in brain structure were found to last for two years after birth, suggesting that pregnancy physiologically changes mothers to understand their babies’ needs.

The study — published today in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that, in women who had been pregnant, the volume of grey matter decreased in certain brain areas involved in the ability to consider how others feel and think. That could boost a woman’s ability to nurture the baby and quickly recognize social threats.

The researchers reached these conclusions after studying 25 women in Spain for more than five years. They scanned the women’s brains before they became pregnant and a few months after they gave birth. For control, they also scanned twice the brains of 20 women who had never been pregnant, the brains of 17 men who were not fathers, and those of 19 first-time fathers. The researchers found that only the women who had been pregnant lost grey matter and had the brain structure changes.

The loss of grey matter wasn’t linked to a loss of cognitive skills or memory, according to the study. Instead, the researchers found that certain brain areas where the grey matter loss was registered were also active when the women looked at pictures of their own babies compared to other babies. Women with more pronounced brain changes also showed more attachment to their children.

The study was small and more research is needed, but experts seem to agree with today’s findings that pregnancy improves mothering skills.