Child(ish) Reads: Mother Brain

One of the things we love writing about at Child(ish) Advice is not only the practice of parenting but the science behind it. When Mother Brain popped up in my forthcoming Audible titles, I immediately pre-ordered it. A perfect title that fit right into our wheelhouse.

This book explores how children physiologically alter our brain. People have been giving birth and having families for thousands of years and yet we have a societal expectation that runs contrary to how we biologically adapt postpartum. Part-science, part statement; this book brings some much needed knowledge to how we care for ourselves post-baby.

Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood by Chelsea Conaboy

A big thing I want to share with this book is that a lot of the postpartum changes discussed are NOT mother-specific. All of the podcast interviews with the author center on changing the terminology of “maternal instinct” to “parental instinct”. This is a big pill to swallow and we will definitely explain it in the takeaways. So, please forward this to your husband/partner/primary caregiver, because this is NOT just for child-bearing moms.


One of the big things that need to be understood from the beginning is the concept of allostasis. Definition: the process by which a state of internal, physiological equilibrium is maintained by an organism in response to actual or perceived environmental and psychological stressors. Similar to homeostasis from Honors Bio 1 that helps your body regulate internally, this is the body adapting to your outside environment. 

In this case, a parent’s body is changing and adapting due to an outside stressor: a new baby.

How is the body changing? Hormones.

Your brain is actually changing chemistry. Your body is actually changing composition. You are activating all of these bodily functions for the express purpose of caring for a child. 

Caregiver Adaptation

The first 4 weeks are usually the toughest for new parents.
How does it get better? Hormones + experience.

Hormonal activity prepares the parts of our brain for increased caregiving. This also means that it takes away resources from other parts of the brain like executive function. Sorry Kate Middleton. You get Baby Brain, too…

Once you get the hang of caregiving as a primary function and once you get more experience and quality time with your newborn, things tend to fall into more of a routine. You get more confident in your caregiving abilities and you start to feel stable again. “Mothers further along in postpartum have greater connectivity in both hemispheres of the brain.” The baby and the caregiver’s brain are in a constant feedback loop.

Key to getting over this hump is the quality time. Quality time with your baby/stressor lets the hormones do their job. So when you hear that skin-to-skin or smelling your baby will help with the bonding, this is it. This goes for both the mother and father.

Fathers also have hormonal brain changes triggered by proximity to the baby. Dads who do not put in the time and lean into caregiver duties find themselves stuck in the middle and don’t get that stability or confidence. This could either lead to the father being considered a secondary/lesser person to their baby or in many cases, this could lead paternal postpartum depression. 

To state, there is no research that proves that women are biologically more adept to tending to babies than fathers.

This is a not-so-subtle call to advocate and take full advantage of parental leave if you have the privilege. Mothers, fathers and babies need that time. Consequently, people like Tucker Carlson and Joe Rogan who argue that men aren’t needed in the first months of their baby’s life and who shame men for actually taking family leave, they can s*ck it…

Postpartum = Puberty

One in five new parents develop some sort of anxiety or mood disorder in postpartum. We will get into this on Thursday. Commonly in society, the postpartum period is about a year after birth. Big fallacy #1.

The body undergoes huge development after giving birth, similar to that of puberty. Puberty, as we all know, lasts about seven years. Our bodies and brains are changing on a behavioral, cognitive and neurobiological level. This is literally a new life stage. So to perpetuate that you can “get back to your normal self” in 12 months is f*ing laughable.

You would never tell a teenager to hurry up and get through their adolescence. So, why do we put that expectation on parents?

Parents are constantly adapting to their children’s growth and development (again, back to allostasis). Our brains are also growing with theirs. Learning how to be a parent, learning how to re-parent ourselves, practicing self-regulation, dealing with decreased sleep; all of this is growth and maturity.

Every time something happens to our child and we start getting emotional; that’s fluctuating hormones. Cortisol, testosterone and progesterone, serotonin, dopamine, prolactin; it’s all a giant flood to be balanced in this entire period. Again, that goes for both men and women. (Yes, dads can have increased levels of prolactin in their system, and no, they don’t breastfeed…)

There is a nice little section in the book about cortisol and how it really isn’t a stress hormone. Parents have greater levels of cortisol in order to maintain alertness to care for their baby. This makes them more sensitive to a baby’s cries, signs of trouble, etc. While increased cortisol can be okay, in bodies that have trouble regulating cortisol, it can lead to PPD. Matter of fact, there are many environmental, genetic, and cognitive factors that can lead to PPD, not just in the one year after birth.

Moral of the story: There is a very long adjustment period when you have a new baby. And if you decide to have another baby in this 7-year period, it starts all over again. Do not rush this. Do not let other people rush this. Take your time.

Non-Gestational Parents, Too

I think in this review, I’ve driven home that both the mother and father of a newborn will undergo these physiological changes. Now add in surrogate parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, grandparents; literally ANYONE who qualifies as a primary caregiver will have hormonal changes after spending regular quality time with a child. Why? Because their brain adapts to caregiving.

One thing about this book is that there are a lot of rats. Conaboy uses a lot of data and a lot of hormone research uses rats. This is probably the hardest part of the book to get through. While we’ve covered basic brain function on this blog, the neuroscience through all of these chapters can be a little dense, even in an audiobook.

In multiple studies, both male and female rats were put in the same cage with babies from another rat. After a significant amount of time, they began to show caregiving traits even though the baby rats were not theirs biologically. These traits appeared in both sexes of rats who had previously parented a litter and rats that have never had a litter. So to apply this to humans, anyone can develop caregiving traits; and similarly, anyone can develop PPD.

The book also expounds the bigger message of parent mental health, acceptance of family needs when it comes to a social safety net, and rewriting what it means to accommodate working parents professionally and through health insurance policies. It also talks about the inequities of doing this kind of parent research. While there are lots of studies about child development, most research on moms is based on the child relationship and its effects on the child and not on the women themselves. There is little to no research on fathers.

I really liked this book, but I think it is most effective in the hands of parents-to-be. If I had this information five years ago, I think I would’ve been much more proactive about maintaining my and my partner’s mental health. While neither of us had PPD, there were a lot of times in our first year of parenting where we just kind of felt like we were going to be stuck in the hard forever.

To reframe this postpartum period as a time of transition or “matrescence” (the process of becoming a mother), gives it so much more meaning and understanding. Parenthood is a process and a job that you cannot prepare for. Even if you are expecting a second or third child, this would be your first time having two or three kids to balance. This learning curve needs to be normalized.

Happy Hormones to you all!

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