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Pregnancy Changes Mothers'' Brain Structure and Improves Mother-baby Bonding

Pregnancy Changes Mothers' Brain Structure and Improves Mother-baby Bonding

Written by Dr. Lakshmi Venkataraman, MD
Article Reviewed by 
The Medindia Medical Review Team on December 4, 2018 at 3:20 PM
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  • Early bonding between mother and baby is crucial for a childís healthy development and a strong bond facilitates better overall development in the long-term
  • Stronger bonding is facilitated when the mother shows heightened sensitivity to babyís facial signals and emotions such as crying and smiling
  • Women who display increased brain activity in response to babyís facial signals during pregnancy and following delivery showed greater sensitivity to the babyís needs resulting in better bonding between mother and baby

Changes in brain activity that begin during pregnancy may make a woman more sensitive and tuned to her baby's emotional signals and facilitate better and stronger bonding between mother and baby, according to a recent study undertaken at the University of Toronto and Liverpool Hope University. The findings of the study appear in Child Development, a journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Until now studies focused on changes that occurred following delivery, but this study also looks at changes that occur in the woman's brain during pregnancy and how it influences bonding between mother and baby.

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Pregnancy Changes Mothers' Brain Structure and Improves Mother-baby Bonding

Brain Activity of a Woman During Pregnancy, Postpartum and Bonding with Baby
  • The study included 39 women aged between 22 and 39 years of different racial origins, most of them married and having a college degree
  • The participants were reviewed twice, once in the last trimester of pregnancy and the second visit three to five months after delivery
  • During both visits, brain activity was measured using an EEG (electroencephalogram) to test the level of brain activity in response to looking at 40 images showing happy and sad expressions of infants and adults
  • During both visits, the women reported about feeling depressed or anxious and on the second visit the women reported how well they were bonding with their baby
Thus, the brain activity of women during pregnancy and postpartum was measured and the difference in activity between the two measurements was correlated to the degree of bonding between the mother and baby as reported by the women. The findings were as follows:
  • Women with greater increase in brain activity between the first measurement (during pregnancy) and the second measurement following delivery reported a better bonding with their babies
  • Changes in the brain that were observed reflected an automatic process and were not intentionally or deliberately controlled by the participants
  • The changes in brain activity were not found to be related to structural differences in the baby's face but rather emotional needs and signals of the baby
The findings of the study suggest that the brain of the pregnant woman undergoes reorganization in structure and this change is reflected in some women as an increased sensitivity to their baby's emotional cues resulting in a stronger bonding that is critical to healthy development of the child.

Limitations of Study
  • Size of the study was small (39 women)
  • Details of bonding was reported by the women and not observed directly by the study team
  • Direction of the association was not determined i.e. whether brain change caused mother-child relationship or mother-baby bonding caused the brain change
Future Research Plans

The research team plans to further study how emotional networks in the brain communicate and whether these networks influence parent's understanding of their baby's emotional needs or vice versa.

In conclusion, the findings of the study explore the mechanisms that might possibly influence the bonding of the mother and her baby which is very important for the healthy development of the child. To conclude with the remarks of David Haley, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and lead author of the study, "Our findings support the idea that, in the brain, responses to infants' cues change over the course of pregnancy and early motherhood, with some mothers showing more marked changes than others. This variation, in turn, is associated with mothers' reports of their emotional bonds with their babies."

Reference :
  1. Changes in Cortical Sensitivity to Infant Facial Cues From Pregnancy to Motherhood Predict Mother-Infant Bonding - (https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13182)

Source: Medindia

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