Is baby brain actually a superpower?

Contrary to popular belief, having a baby can make your brain fire more efficiently.
baby sleeping on mother's chest

Pregnancy and life with a newborn feels like a foggy blur for most new mums. It’s hard to get comfortable in the former and you’re knee deep in the messy act of parenting for the latter. No surprise that many women, particularly those without a ‘village’ to help reduce the impact of sleepless nights, feel like their minds are turning to mush and judge themselves as suffering from ‘baby brain’.

“Bring these women into the lab and the objective cognitive testing doesn’t find any decline. In fact, it may find cognitive enhancement,” says Dr Sarah McKay, author of Baby Brain (Hachette). “Baby brain isn’t a neurological problem but a social one. It’s a negative stereotypical message women have absorbed for a long time. You can’t remember everything because you are under the high cognitive load that is the steep learning curve of a new baby.”

That learning curve, as it turns out, can actually sharpen your cognitive ability. “Giving birth is one of the best things that can ever happen to a woman’s brain,” says Dr McKay.

“The brain is in a state of high plasticity because it’s geared to focusing on the survival of offspring. Structural changes take place that influence women to become more socially attuned, intuitive and empathetic.”

And it’s not just a short-term brain boost either. Neuroscientists can look at a brain scan years later and detect the positive impacts of having had a baby. “Those women’s brains are younger looking,” says Dr McKay. “With each child, up to the first four children, their brains are younger looking by about six months. As a parent you are constantly challenging yourself cognitively, so it’s hardly a surprise that we can see this has an effect on aging.”

A newborn baby holding a persons finger

Interestingly, having a baby can also benefit father’s brains too. “For dads the degree of change was dose dependent. The more they interacted with the offspring, the more their brains changed,” says Dr McKay. Physically carrying and birthing a baby gives mothers a distinct advantage – the spike in oestrogen is thought to positively impact brain resilience, but more research needs to be done.

“We have more studies on left-handedness than we do on mothering because it wasn’t seen as relevant,” says Sarah. “Women didn’t evolve to become dysfunctional after having a baby, while men carry on. That’s been a convenient story. Pregnancy and the act of mothering is good for you. It makes you smarter.”

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