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In 2017, the results from the first study on the brain in pregnancy were published. Three female researchers in Spain designed the study and recruited women who had never before been pregnant. They then took MRIs of the brain before birth and a few weeks afterward. They also scanned the fathers’ brains which helped them better understand if the changes were a result of pregnancy or parenthood. The results showed that the mother’s brain goes through the greatest structural change in response to any experience that any human goes through. The hormone oestrogen is involved in the structural changes in the third trimester which makes new mothers’ brains adaptable, flexible, primed to learn quickly and figure things out.
Here’s five things about the postpartum brain that you’ll find empowering (and definitely not embarrassing):
1. The hormone oestrogen is great for brain health. Oestrogen is a cognitive enhancer, it’s great for brain health and it builds neural resilience. You have sky high levels in pregnancy but you then experience a sudden, significant dip in the first few days after birth and that’s when you have vulnerability to baby blues. You can definitely expect the baby blues – sad, teary and anxious – but if these feelings persist for over four weeks, it’s best to chat to your GP.
2. You’re primed for learning after birth. You don’t automatically know how to mother your baby or understand their cries and cues. Your brain experiences structural changes in pregnancy so that when your baby is born, you are primed to learn. And you learn how to mother every day as you better understand what your baby wants and needs. These structural changes take place in parts of the brain with social cognition, reading social cues, empathy, theory of mind – thinking about what someone else is thinking and feeling. There’s also a correlation between the degree of structural change in pregnancy and the degree of attachment, awareness and engagement after birth.
3. The postpartum brain has a reduction in grey matter. That’s because your brain is rewiring to help you adapt to your role as a mother. The same thing happens in adolescence – a time of significant brain development and maturation. That’s why psychologist Alexandra Sacks uses the term matrescence to describe the developmental transition into motherhood.
Head to boody.com.au/australianbirthstories – you’ll find everything you need for this time in your life and beyond plus a code to enjoy 15% off everything in the edit.
4. Sleep should be prescribed in postpartum. Sleep is one of the greatest protectors we have against postnatal depression but of course, sleep deprivation is one of the most common experiences of postpartum. The hours before midnight are the best for settled sleep so we need to be having more conversations about how families can create opportunities for the mother’s sleep in the fourth trimester and beyond.
5. Non-birthing parents experience brain changes, too. This includes biological dads, foster and adoptive mothers, non-birthing mothers and gay fathers. The change is driven by interaction with the baby.
To hear more about baby brain and the almighty changes in pregnancy and postpartum, listen to episode 386 with neuroscientist, Dr Sarah McKay.
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If you’re in the third trimester you’re no doubt thinking about all that’s to come; labour, birth, and a precious newborn baby. There is so much to look forward to and prepare for. But often, we spend so much time thinking of what our baby needs that we rarely think about ourselves. So, we’re here to gently encourage you (read: implore you!) to start thinking about your post-birth recovery. It’s generally quite a slow process and for many women, especially first-time mothers, it can be quite confronting. We don’t want to scare you but research shows that realistic expectations pave the way for a positive postpartum experience
Typically occurring between day 3-5 after birth, breast engorgement is a common symptom in early postpartum when your milk comes. It can also occur later in your breastfeeding journey if your baby sleeps for longer and misses a feed, or drops a feed during the day or night. It can cause your breasts to be full and hard and this can cause pain and make it tricky for your baby to latch. Essentially, your breasts can feel like they’re about to explode which is quite disconcerting.
You may have heard some nightmarish stories about mastitis and frankly, it’s not something you want to contend with at any stage of your breastfeeding journey. It’s most common in the first three months postpartum but it can strike at any time, particularly if your baby has reduced their feeds, is starting to sleep for longer periods at night or you’re weaning.
In early postpartum, breastfeeding and sleep challenges are common and can contribute to anxiety and overwhelm. Unless you have a private midwife, there’s a distinct void of health services in postpartum which makes it challenging to access professional support. It’s definitely beneficial to be aware of this in pregnancy so you can adequately prepare for postpartum.
Firstly, if you’ve recently birthed your baby and your bleeding has increased, don’t delay in seeking medical attention. It’s recommended to present to the emergency department at your local hospital and explain that you’ve recently given birth and you’re concerned about your blood loss. You may be experiencing a postpartum haemorrhage.
If you’re currently pregnant and starting to gather essentials for your baby, chances are you’re thinking about the must-haves for your nappy bag.
The colloquial and derogatory term, baby brain, has been used for decades to explain the forgetfulness and brain fog of new motherhood. But research proves that the brain in new motherhood is primed for learning.
Comfortable basics are absolutely essential for early postpartum when your body is soft and sore. Your physical recovery will be very dependent on your birth experience but, that said, no-one is bouncing back from pregnancy and birth. The whole concept of returning to who you were before your pregnancy is unrealistic; your body has taken almost a year to conceive, grow and birth your baby, it will take you time to recover and heal.