Your Brain on Motherhood: How Hormones Get You Into Mommy Mode

If you drew a picture of a woman with pregnancy brain, what would she look like?




It usually conjures a pitiful image, like someone lost in the wilderness trying to decipher a map. But the truth is, a woman’s brain during pregnancy and into new motherhood is a fully firing thing of wonder. It’s anything but lost.

It’s a brain on a mission.

During pregnancy, hormones work triple time to support your baby’s growth as Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, confirms, “There are 15-40 times more progesterone and estrogen marinating the brain during pregnancy.” With progesterone’s sedative-like effect, no wonder pregnant women are tired and forgetful. The flood of hormones is so intense it temporarily shrinks your brain by up to eight percent, but it bounces back to normal by six months postpartum.

I was surprised by how hormonal I got. I didn’t have lots of crazy hormones during pregnancy, and I’m not a very emotional person, but they all hit me after the baby... And the lack of sleep is really, really hard. I wasn’t prepared for how exhausted you are…But it gets easier and better.
— New Mom

In addition to massive hormonal changes, your brain undergoes a literal re-structuring with neural connections being trimmed and rerouted to support mothering behavior like empathy, bonding, and protectiveness. It’s a highly elaborate process, and a study at the University of British Columbia confirmed the complex ways pregnancy permanently alters the brain:

“Hormones have a profound impact on our mind. Pregnancy and motherhood are life-changing events resulting in marked alterations in the psychology and physiology of a woman.”
- Dr. Liisa Galea, University of British Columbia

So, here’s a breakdown of some of the hormones swirling in your system:

Oxytocin, AKA the “love” hormone, plays a big part in childbirth and breastfeeding (milk “let down”), and it drives maternal behavior like attachment, affection, and empathy.

Progesterone and estrogen run high during pregnancy then drop off after childbirth to allow for breastfeeding. These hormones are tied to mood regulation and fluctuations contribute to baby blues and postpartum mood disorders.

Prolactin has a relaxing effect and supports milk production and breastfeeding.

There’s also fluctuating thyroid and cortisol levels to consider, and sleep deprivation has a major effect on hormones and mood regulation.

Put all of this together and OF COURSE you're feeling all over the map, but know that there’s a purpose in it. Your body is on an incredible journey, and it’s a temporary state of being. Over time, you’ll feel more balanced, more confident, and like a new mommy you!

You have the hormones going on, and you’re tired and you have this baby to take care of and you’re crying and you don’t know why, and you’re kind of a mess. I felt like he (husband) was kind of afraid that it was going to be like this all the time. Like, ‘Am I going to have a crying baby and a crying wife?’ It stressed him out. So, I’d tell him, ‘Right now, I’m a little bit cranky, and you just need to let me get through this and give me a hug and then go take the baby.’ So if they can understand that it won’t always be like that and it will get better, it will pass, then that’s very helpful.
— New Mom