The Myth of Baby Brain

Introduction

One of the common things pregnant women and new mothers complain about is that they have developed ‘Baby Brain’ (sometimes known as ‘Nappy Brain’) – the seeming inability to function as the rational, logical human being they were BEFORE they conceived.  But there IS a good reason for this apparent ‘loss’ of brain function, you’ll be glad to know!

To begin to understand why this happens, we need to look a little bit at the structure of the brain as science currently believes it to be.  Any neurologists reading this article can just skip the next bit!  To anyone who ISN’T a neurologist; I promise, I’ll make this as painless as possible…

Brain Science for Dummies!

A healthy adult brain consists of two sides (known as hemispheres), and a collection of tissue between the two hemispheres that links them together, called the corpus callosum.  When a baby is born, its brain is not fully formed.  During the first year after birth, a baby’s brain develops at the SAME rate as it did before the birth, and the corpus callosum is not fully developed until about 3 years old.

Human brain

The two sides of the brain process information in different, but both equally vital, ways.  The left side of the brain deals with the logical, rational, linear, linguistic etc, information we receive and the right hemisphere deals with the intuitive, creative, body language etc.  It registers painful feelings and picks up emotional atmospheres.  It has much stronger links with the body than the left hemisphere so can quickly register how your body is coping with an emotional event.

The corpus callosum, when fully developed, allows communication between the two hemispheres. But until this time, babies and young children do not have the words (a left-brained function) to explain their feelings (a right-brained function).  They have no real left-brain activity until they reach 3 years old, so need to use their instincts/intuition to survive and their body language to communicate their needs to their care givers.

Hormones

OK, the lesson in brain science is over.  Now there’s one more thing we need to understand, and that’s hormones and how they change during pregnancy and birth.  One of the key hormones is oxytocin.  Oxytocin is the hormone that makes us feel love (of ANY kind, not just the love we feel for our babies) and is at its highest levels when we fall in love, during love-making, during labour and when we are breastfeeding.  A good way to remember its functions is to remember it’s the hormone of the 3 L’s – labour, love and lactation!  It’s also been called the hormone of the 3 F’s – and there’s a gold star to anyone who can email me with the three F-words!!  Another useful way to remember what it does is “tend and be friend” (a bit like the good old “fight, freeze or flight” for another hormone, adrenaline).  Incidentally, the level of oxytocin also rises when we share food with somebody else, hence the importance of sitting together for meals in creating and maintaining strong family bonds.

Mothers are in their Right Minds!

Before pregnancy, particularly in our Western culture, the focus of our adult brain largely tends to be on the left – the logical, linguistic side.  But when we become pregnant, our brain focus tends to start naturally shifting to adapt us to use the right side more.  The way this happens is that oxytocin works to muffle the left-brain so the right-brain can take over more.  This is a necessary part of beginning the transition to parenthood and is vital for nurturing.  As already stated, babies and young children do not have a fully developed left-brain until about 3, which is why you can’t reason with a toddler, particularly a tantruming one!!  Therefore, in order to be able to nurture our babies and toddlers, and understand their needs, we need to have our instinctive antennae for body language and other non-verbal behaviour tuned into our child’s frequency, which means using our right brain much more.

This shift can be disconcerting for women if they are left-brain dominant – particularly as having ‘baby-brain’ tends to have negative connotations; we never hear anyone say “Great, I’m so forgetful today!  Must be my right brain taking over so I can tune into my baby better!”  This shift isn’t permanent, but will remain whilst our children are young.  Eventually, we can even switch brain dominance during the course of a day, allowing women to function in their pre-pregnant left brain state whilst, say, at work.  But switch back to their right brain state when they are back with their children.

Mother and Baby

Ultimately then, it’s not so much that our brains decline, but that we spontaneously shift the focus of our brain to become intuitive, nurturing mothers.  So the next time you feel less than logical, instead of berating yourself, simply remember that you’re actually in your ‘right mind’ and that you’re instinctively doing exactly what you need to do to be the best mother to your baby!!

Further Reading

Margot Sunderland – What Every Parent Needs to Know, published by Dorling Kindersley (2007)

Michel Odent – Birth and Breastfeeding, published by Clairview (2003)

Michel Odent – The Caesarean, published by Free Association Books (2004)

Dr Sarah Buckley – Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, published by One Moon Press, Australia (2005)