The Science of “Mommy Brain”: Can it hurt or enhance performance?

Often when I’m trying to get out the door once our babysitter arrives, I end up coming back in several times to get forgotten keys, cell phone, gear, or whatever else I realize I’ve forgotten on the way out to the car! During pregnancy and ever since I’ve jokingly blamed my absentmindedness on “Mommy Brain”. When I recently read a great book called The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine I was happy to discover that a mother’s brain is truly altered structurally and functionally, and even irreversibly through the hormones of pregnancy, close contact with a child, and breastfeeding. Understanding this phenomenom a little better helped me realize the reasons for the mental fog, and appreciate the sometimes tough balance of being away from my children to work or train.

An interesting fact I read in this book is that between six months and the end of pregnancy a pregnant women’s brain actually shrinks! Scientists aren’t sure exactly why but believe it may be due to the massive restructuring of brain circuits, the “birth” of all our maternal circuits you could say, or everything needed to make sure we are rewired to protect and care for our babies. Apparently during the first six months after birth the parts of the brain responsible for focus and concentration are overrided with protecting and tracking your newborn. Brain size only returns to normal at around 6 months postpartum and breastfeeding can also prolong moments of ditsiness. Of course, if your focus and memory isn’t quite where it used to be in the first year after childbirth or more it could also be due to the fact that mothers lose an average of seven hundred hours of sleep in the first year postpartum!

When I first started training and working after Zoe was born I also often felt a little anxiety and guilt about being away from her. After every workout I would hurry home as fast as I could hoping she’d made out okay without me. Although I’ve been a little more relaxed and more able to just enjoy my time away the second time around with baby Nico, it is interesting to learn that these withdrawal feelings are normal. Mommy brain can cause feelings of “withdrawal” when physically separated from your baby due a decline in levels of the hormone oxytocin, produced from nursing, especially if the separation is more than a few hours. Hmmm. It is comforting to have these biological explanations but since most of us can’t be with our children 24-7, I know for me it is important to have childcare that I trust and allows me to go to work or for a workout stress and guilt free.

And the positives of the changes of mommy brain according to this book are that 1) surges of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain switch off judgmental thinking and negative emotions, while also switching on pleasure circuits, 2) breastfeeding causes blood pressure to drop, and increases feelings of peacefulness and relaxation, and 3) maternal brain circuits change in ways that may allow mothers to have better spatial memory and be more flexible, adaptive, and courageous than females who haven’t given birth – all skills and talents we need keep track of and protect our babies (note: the brain transformation hold true for adoptive mothers too as it happens when in continuous close physical contact with your child). You know, like if you have to lift a car or fight a wild boar!

So in the end, in the first year or more of your babies life, you may feel like you’ve lost your mind, you’re incredibly in love with your baby, it is stressful to be separated from him or her, you’re constantly tired, you need support from others in your new role as a mom, and you love the excitement of what each new day brings with your little one all at once.

While of course, there is the initial drop in your mental and physcial performance, the incredible life change and adaptation that it takes to become a mother has the potential to make us stretch and grow in every direction, allow us to become stronger and more patient, and give us the ultimate perspective on performance!

3 thoughts on “The Science of “Mommy Brain”: Can it hurt or enhance performance?

  1. Once again it is like you are reading my mind.
    Thank you for telling me I am NORMAL! Today being long run day, I needed to hear this. Thanks!

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