Earlier this week we started our discussion on how motherhood makes you smarter. Based on neuro-scientific research, your brain begins to change during pregnancy to help you develop the skills you need for successful motherhood, such as sharpened senses, improved memory and more empathy. Today we’re taking a look at one specific area of motherhood that makes you smarter and it’s our favorite one to talk about: breastfeeding!
First, let’s start with hormones. Oxytocin is an essential hormone required for lactation and is an integral part of a complex web that involves neurotransmission in your brain. It also contributes to feelings of joy and peacefulness, especially as it pertains to bonding with your baby. Research links the relaxation associated with oxytocin to greater capacity for learning and memory. Plus, the unique baby-stimulated process of producing oxytocin for lactation makes new neurochemical pathways that train mothers to respond lovingly to their babies. And it reduces a new mom’s stress response too, which could otherwise lower her mental capacity.
Furthermore, mothers who breastfeed are more likely to be social, perhaps because breastfeeding is such a unifying experience. Even during challenging times, nursing moms tend to lean on other moms for social and emotional support. And guess what? Socialization improves cognition too! The satisfaction of engaging social interactions and friendships boosts your brain, in addition to stimulating conversations you may have while being social.
From an evolutionary perspective breastfeeding is also related to brain size. Two researchers – Robert Barton and Isabella Capellini – studied mammalian brain sizes in correlation to the duration of the maternal investment of the species. Their findings concluded that mammals that spend longer in the gestation and lactation phases of childhood have larger brains and are therefore smarter. Examples include elephants, dolphins, monkeys and, of course, humans.
You’ve certainly heard a lot about how breastfeeding improves your baby’s cognition and studies point to breastfed babies having higher IQ. Part of this is the incredible nutrition found in breast milk, but the other part is about parental attentiveness. As you know, breastfeeding is an intimate relationship that promotes bonding. Learning your baby’s physical and emotional cues is a significant skill that actually helps make you smarter, as well as your baby. As we learned earlier this week, your brain is being hard-wired during pregnancy to sense these cues.
Like other aspects of motherhood, breastfeeding makes you smarter because you are navigating a new skill and a new relationship. You’re learning to read your baby and your own body; your baby requires extreme empathy; you’re managing your time and energy; you’re prioritizing your family’s needs; and you are planning ahead to ensure all the pieces of your life as a new mom run smoothly. And you’re doing all of it on less sleep with not much of a break. It’s a lot to think about and it may make your mind hurt sometimes but these new experiences are fantastic for your brain.
It’s enthralling to see how motherhood makes you smarter, especially the most precious period of breastfeeding. Next time you’re kicking yourself for making a silly mommy mistake, remember that that’s anything but mommy brain. Mommy brain makes you smarter, stronger and better able to face the world of motherhood and beyond!
Sources: BabyCenter, Smithsonian, The Bump, The Alpha Parent and The Mommy Brain