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15 Ways Pregnancy Changes A Woman's Brain

Pregnancy affects so much more than just the belly. As the body develops and adjusts to the new baby, so does the mind. Your sense of smell becomes heightened. Your feelings are amplified. You may feel just a little more nervous around new faces or men. Why all the strange and even inexplicable changes? Talk to your brain.

Yes, pregnancy brain is real: just not in ways you would expect. All brain changes that happen during pregnancy prepare you to become a better mother and protect your baby. While you may feel more forgetful or clumsy at times, making you feel like your body's out to get to, your brain is actually trying to help you get ready for the baby.

Next time you forget the date or flub up during an important event, don't blame pregnancy brain. Blame stress. Remember that brain developments during pregnancy, while you may not believe it, happen to prepare you to become a parent. This article explores fifteen important brain tweaks that wire your brain for motherhood.

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15 You Become More Nervous Around Strangers

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Surprisingly, you may feel less comfortable meeting new people during pregnancy. Expecting women are more likely to feel tense or uncomfortable around people they don't know. This change can be so subtle that, unless you're looking for it, you may not even notice. If you've noticed you feel a little more stressed when running errands or going out with friends, however, it may be because you instinctively feel wary around new faces.

What causes this effect in pregnant women? The reaction may be linked to the immune system. While you're pregnant, your body's immune system is suppressed during the first trimester to ensure that the baby isn't mistaken for a foreign body. Your body may be on alert for bacteria that might make you ill, and as a result, you may be subconsciously nervous around strangers.

14 Sense Of Smell Is Heightened

If you feel like your sense of smell is just a little better since you discovered that you're expecting, your mind isn't playing tricks on you. An influx of hormones during pregnancy (particularly estrogen) can make even little scents raise in intensity. Depending on the smell, this can be both a blessing and a curse.

In fact, some studies monitored women born without a sense of smell (through a condition called anosmia) and found that they do not suffer from morning sickness during pregnancy. Try to surround yourself with positive scents during pregnancy to minimalism negative smells and soothe your stomach.

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13 The Brain Gets Better At Processing Social Information

Through a study performed by Dr. Elena Hoekzema at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, she and her colleagues found that strengthened social inference is among the changes new mothers can develop during their pregnancy. They may feel more able to infer what their child needs and become more sensitive to their emotions. The stronger the bond between mother and child, particularly after birth, the more heightened the effect.

From an evolutionary standpoint, mothers rely strongly on this change as they adjust to their new baby. Mothers need to guess what their child is feeling and address their needs. Because babies are helpless and limited in communication, being able to infer their infant's moods is important. If you notice elevated senses of empathy for others while expecting, you can bet that your body's getting ready for the new baby.

12 Memory Improves

During pregnancy, the brain's hippocampi change in small but important ways. The hippocampus is a pair of small, banana-shaped structures located in each hemisphere in the brain. They are important for forming memories and storing them as long-term information, and they are involved in processing emotions and learning.

From the first trimester onward, you may notice changes in your memory and its efficiency. Some may feel that their brain is more able to keep and retain information, and they may feel that they can better rely on their instincts. Others may feel that they are more forgetful and inattentive, and that their memory is a bit foggier than usual. What we commonly refer to as "pregnancy brain" may have roots in hippocampi changes during the next nine months.

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11 More Likely To Develop Anxiety Or Depression

Antepartum depression is unfortunately very real, and an estimated 14-23% of women suffer from symptoms of depression or anxiety during pregnancy. As a surge of hormones overwhelms your body, brain activity increases in regions connected to anxiety, depression, and empathy. You may feel constantly worried about your new baby to the point where your thinking becomes obsessive, or you may suddenly lose interest in everyday activities.

You are not alone if you suffer from anxiety or depression while expecting, and you don't need to overcome this by yourself. Talk to your ob-gyn or midwife to find local supports. They can direct you to a mental health care provider or support group to help understand and manage these feelings. Certain anti-depressants can be safe to take while pregnant, and your ob-gyn can also connect you to a psychiatrist.

10 Stressed? Blame Cortisol

Regardless of any brain changes, pregnant women have every reason to be stressed. Expecting a child is one of the biggest life changes you will ever go through, and as you prepare for parenthood, you're going to be at least a little frazzled.

Stress during pregnancy is completely normal. Prenatal cortisol levels (a hormone that causes stress reactions) are linked to attentive mothering, and in healthy doses, a little stress can motivate you to manage challenging situations well. When stress reaches unhealthy levels, however, cortisol can wire your baby for anxiety problems later on. Take steps toward healthy stress management for you and your baby's well-being.

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9 Feelings Are Amplified

During pregnancy and labor, pregnant women produce an excess of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that plays an important role in childbirth and mood management. Increased levels of oxytocin can make women more trusting towards loved ones as well as empathetic in emotional situations.

Additionally, oxytocin also increases aggression towards perceived danger. This may be because the hormone assists you in bonding to your baby. When your child's safety is threatened, you are then more likely to fight against the danger to protect your child. You've heard of "Mama Bear?" Oxytocin is the hormone behind Mama Bear and the reason she comes out.

8 Appetite Changes To Protect The Baby

Despite how nauseated it makes you feel, many doctors feel that morning sickness is a good sign. Your heightened sense of smell makes you hyper-aware of foods that could make you or your baby ill. As you avoid more questionable foods,  you're more likely to develop a sensitive stomach. Along with other triggers, such as a reaction to pregnancy hormones, you may develop morning sickness.

If your morning sickness is so bad that you can't keep anything down, try eating smaller meals and avoid situations that make you feel more ill (such as warm places or while eating spicy foods).  Do what you can manage to eat enough nutrients for you and your baby.

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7 The Brain May Shrink. Slightly.

Yes, your brain really does shrink a little during pregnancy. But this is not a bad thing! Researchers at Hammersmith Hospital found that an expecting woman's brain can shrink by up to 6 percent. The grey matter in your brain may shrink and condense, and you may not recover the reduced brain matter until up to 24 weeks after delivery.

But don't blame less brain matter for "momnesia." Brain functioning in pregnant mothers is comparable to women who are not expecting. In fact, some researchers believe that the condensed brain matter allows more efficient functioning in these areas. Rather than make your brain foggier, the dense grey matter may develop more connected pathways.

Don't worry: you're not going to become a pinhead overnight because of pregnancy. Your brain has your best interest, and while you're expecting, it will put more focus into heightening the brain functions you need most as a new mother.

6 On The Bright Side, Your Intelligence Increases

In 2010, Yale conducted a study that found mothers who bonded well with their babies and expressed positive emotions towards them experienced significant brain changes. The structural wiring in their brains allowed for heightened information-processing capabilities. These changes can help you cope with whatever life throws at you as you adjust to life as a new mother.

Staunch believes in "baby brain" can bite their tongue. Pregnant or new mothers show the same intelligence level as others and perform equally on tests. Professor Helen Christiansen of the Australian National University in Canberra found that, in three separate studies using 2500 women, women experience no decreases in brainpower during and after pregnancy.

What's to blame for memory lapses? Don't look at your brain. Look at your sleeping habits and stress levels, and see if either of those may affect your daily functioning.

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5 Brain Changes Based On How You Bond With The Baby

Your new brain developments don't end once the baby is born. After childbirth, depending on how you bond with your baby, your brain may continue to undergo changes that help you adjust to the new addition to the family.

Remember the grey matter reductions this article mentioned earlier? New mothers who bond the strongest with their baby see the greatest reduction in grey-matter volume. They measured as calmer, more able to practice healthy stress management, and better at processing memories. Mothers who bonded well with babies also reported higher levels of empathy and social inference.

If you're having trouble bonding with your baby, however, don't beat yourself up. Many mothers have a hard time adjusting to their new child. It's not as an immediate process as you might thing. Causes can range from postpartum depression to individual differences in bonding. Give it time, and consider talking to a close friend or professional if you feel concerned.

4 May Feel More Wary Around Men

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Strangers aren't the only people who may set you on edge when you're expecting. You may find a newfound aversion to about fifty percent of the population as you progress in pregnancy: men. A 2010 study found that pregnant women are more likely to spot and concentrate on male faces. While researchers aren't entirely confident why, some chalk it up to protecting the baby.

While this reaction may have roots in evolutionary development, women may have good reason to keep vigilant towards men. Homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women and new mothers worldwide, and men are more likely to exhibit aggression towards others than women. Females have evolved to protect their baby no matter what, and that may mean being extra-vigilant whether the situation calls for it or not.

So if your husband puts you a little more on edge than usual or you tense up when passing men in the grocery store, you're not being overly-paranoid (at least not on purpose). Your brain is protecting you and your baby by keeping you on constant watch.

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3 Congratulations: You Are Now An Expert Multitasker

As a whole, women are actually better at multitasking than men. During pregnancy, hormones cause the pre-frontal cortex to undergo significant growth. This part of the brain allows humans to multitask more efficiently. It also contributes to personality development, and you may gain a more patient and future-oriented attitude as your due date gets closer.

One of the greatest skills you will ever learn as a parent is multitasking. As your child grows older, you will rely on it more and more to stay on top of life's everyday challenges (and your own sanity). You may wish that your brain could take all the stressors away or teach you to become the perfect parent, but be grateful it gives you a head start on learning to multitask.

2 Become More Compassionate

Oxytocin isn't just linked to child birthing and emotional changes: hormone researchers don't call it "the cuddle hormone" for nothing. Oxytocin influences maternal bonding and emotional intimacy, and it is released when people kiss, embrace, or engage in other acts of emotional intimacy.

When our bodies release oxytocin, we become more bonded to the person we're around, whether that is a spouse, a close friend, or your older children. Pregnant women release oxytocin in stronger quantities than other people, and the bonds that they make are stronger and more charged. When you express closeness with another person, you may feel connected to that person and more willing to nurture them than usual.

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1 Babies Themselves Can Change The Brain!

As it turns out, babies tweak your brain just as much as your body influences change. After childbirth, your brain may exhibit elevated oxytocin levels to help you imprint to your baby's sounds, smells, and temperament. New mothers can even distinguish their own baby from another's through scent with 90% accuracy.

But the baby themselves can have a potent effect on the brain. Those who are around a newborn child may experience a pheromone release in the brain, which cause attachment and even a longing for a baby of their own. As your friends hold and care for your newborn, they may even become baby hungry themselves.

This is your brain on pregnancy: between the hormone surges and grey matter reductions, you may enter motherhood an entirely different person from when you first got pregnant. You may become more empathetic, patient, and even a little smarter than you once were. From now on, don't hate "pregnancy brain:" thank it.

Sources: WhatToExpect.com, Healthline.com, TheAtlantic.com, WebMD.com, LiveScience.com, BBC.com, DailyMail.co.uk, Newsweek.com, AmericanPregnancy.com, MotherAndBaby.co.uk

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