Baby Brain, Mommy Brain

By Don Goewey

New research has wonderful news for pregnant women but unfortunately it also has terrible news. The wonderful news is that pregnancy increases brain power in expectant moms. The terrible news is that stress can take her and her child in the opposite direction.  Stress hormones can cross over into the fetus and seriously effect the brain of the child.  Additionally, stress hormones can shrink the mother’s neural networks that generate the higher order brain function that make her smart.  Happily, there is something that can be done about it to insure that all goes well for mother and child.

The Wonderful News 

It was once thought that pregnancy caused a woman to lose brain power.  Not so.  A new research study involving more than 2,500 women over ten years has found that brainpower not only doesn’t decline during pregnancy; it appears to actually increase, producing a permanent improvement in brain function. The study found significant increases in mental acuity and memory in women during pregnancy and after childbirth. Even husbands show increased mental performance and empathy, although not to the same degree (Kinsley and Lambert, 2009).

Pregnant women have long been the butt of a demeaning stereotype. It paints a picture of a hormonal mess of a woman, charmingly stupid and erratic, turning every day into an episode of I Love Lucy. “Placenta brain” is the common term used to describe this stereotype; some in medical science call it “maternal amnesia. It is yet another stereotype that does not hold up to examination. When researchers challenged the stereotype they found evidence of cultural prejudice toward a pregnant woman. Sara Corse at the University of Pennsylvania had MBA students interact with a manager they were told was pregnant. In reality, she was really a research assistant pretending to be pregnant.

The students who related to the ‘manager’ as pregnant gave her more negative ratings than the control group that had no notion of her being pregnant. The deceived students viewed the “pregnant manager” as passive or erratic, not as a leader deserving respect.

The Terrible News

Stress is the terrible news.  When large amounts of the stress hormone cortisol reach the fetal brain, it can cause structural and functional changes that are not good. New research (Weinstock-Rosin, 2008; Monk, 2010) shows that the offspring of stressed mothers during pregnancy were later shown to have impaired learning and memory abilities, attention-deficit, less capacity to cope with adverse situations and symptoms of anxiety and depressive-like behavior, as compared to unstressed mothers.  There is evidence that stress during pregnancy may even be a factor in autism and schizophrenia.

Here’s What You Can Do About It

It turns out that, biologically, a peaceful attitude is the path to the best outcome. The more peaceful you are during pregnancy, the more your child’s brain will grow in the positive ways that assure the good life you envision for him or her.  As a number of studies have shown over the last decade (Davidson, 2001) a dynamically peaceful attitude is a prescription for an amazing brain – for mother as well as child.

Four Steps

Click here for four steps that can help expectant moms (and dads) sustain the dynamically peaceful attitude that grows a healthy baby.


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