Mother's brains and emotions

Inspirations form Neuroscience to use them well.

Another fab article from one of our favorites Neuroscience lab with tons of inspiration for expectant and new mothers. Two years ago, Elseline Hoekzema and her colleagues have given a picture of the structural changes that happen in the brain during pregnancy and how they relate to the new tasks mothers have to perform. We have summed it up here, marveling at the powers that the brain can acquire. They are nothing short from superpowers, helping the mother see the world from the child’s point of view and feel the child’s needs in her own self.

Now the same group of neuroscientists is looking into how these changes are linked with mental health, in particular with Post-Natal Depression, Post-Natal Anxiety and Post-Natal Psychosis. While these conditions are much more widespread than we might assume, they have something to teach even to those of us who do not suffer from clinical conditions. After all, acquiring superpower comes with its challenges for everyone!

We recommend you read the article by Barba Müller and colleagues because it really brings together so much research that has easy-to-implement implications to improve the lives of mothers and their babies. Here we just mention the issues that nobody should ignore.


Babies can’t regulate their emotion. Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to regulate one’s emotion for adults too. This means that we often end up with emotion overload and we can get the feeling that we are navigating from one crisis to the next, maybe looking for a temporary quick fix from sugar and caffeine (Been there. Done that).

Rutheford and colleagues tell us that the mother, in order to help her infant to integrate his/her emotions, must first effectively regulate her own emotional arousal and coordinate it with thoughts, actions, and interactions. So, what if we learned to NOTICE when we are “surprised” (ok… this might be a euphemism) by our child’s lack of consideration and by how unreasonable all her requests seem to be? If we learned to take that feeling of frustration as a “hold on” sign. If we learned to associate that with looking away for a moment from the child and into our own emotional world?

If we asked people around us to support us do just that, rather than short-term fixing issue after issue (or even worse, giving us unpracticable advice)? It might be the perfect occasion to look into our own emotional pattern and needs, to make sense of them, to see how we can address them in our lives and how we live them out in relation to other people. We might find that taking care of that will automatically make our child crazy requests seem less intolerable.

Practicing emotional awareness and regulation can be a great help against post-natal depression and anxiety, which we know affect almost 50% of the new mothers.


To be a mum means to use the most sophisticated bit of our brain (for instance the ability to attribute mental states to our self or others, aka “social intelligence”), while responding to the most basic impulses from the part of the brain that we share with all mammals (for instance feeding  our offspring).

  • Nappy changing & Time Management

  • Cuddles & Identity Searching

  • Round-the-clock feeding & Family Mediation

  • Comforting & Career Management

A mother often masters all of those and is required to swiftly switch from one to the other. With a smile. And no extra fat, please. Nothing against smiles and healthy bodies, but let’s face it: some things are more important than others… and making the most of our brain for the sake of our offspring and for our own seems to belong pretty high up.

Young and colleagues tell us that when prefrontal and subcortical regions enjoy good cross-regulation, the mother shows more adaptive behaviour towards her baby.

Now let us unpack this: Prefrontal areas are the ones involved in the all that comes after the “&” in the list above – the “sophisticated stuff”. Subcortical regions have to do with what comes before the “&” – the “animal stuff”. Examples of more adaptive behaviour are enhanced sensitivity to the child’s voice, positive parenting thoughts, high-quality mother-child relationship, reduced avoidance, reduced hostility. What does this all mean? That we will be better mothers (and enjoy being it!) if the different parts of our brain work together as a team. Being clever will not be enough. Following our instinct will not be enough either. We can be (we must be!) both sophisticated and animal at the same time.

  • Delicate & Fierce

  • Alert & Reassuring

  • Receptive & Stimulating

  • Accepting & Encouraging

Knowing that this is one of the most important things we have to work on (rather than, for instance, having a baby that sleeps to the night or a child that has impeccable table manners) will help us prioritize our efforts. Bringing together our knowledge and our instinct is not only possible, but it is also the essential work of a mother. Maternity has given us the superpower of a brain where the animal and the sophisticated parts can work as a team.

Let us own up to it! Let us practice with it! Let us make the most of it!

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