This Is Your Brain On Breastfeeding

Photo Credit: Sugarsnap Photography

Sorry, Fuzzy Pregnancy Brain Continues with Breastfeeding

You know how your brain literally shrinks while you’ve got a baby in the womb, causing what’s commonly and oh-so-affectionately known as ‘pregnancy brain’?

Though you might feel like the dullest knife in the drawer for about nine months, the fuzziness does work for a good cause.

The evolutionary view is that the resultant mental fog allows women to literally forget about everything else and focus only on their babies. ‘Pregnancy brain’ also erases traumatic memories of labor and birth so women will be, you know, tricked by mother nature into doing that all over again.

Thankfully, depressed cell function should reverse by six months postpartum and your brain will make some other worthy gains postpartum, according to the American Psychological Association:

Exploratory research…found that the brains of new mothers bulked up in areas linked to motivation and behavior…A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after [new mothers] gave birth showed that gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain. In adults, gray matter volume doesn’t ordinarily change over a few months without significant learning, brain injury or illness, or major environmental change.” – Craig Kinsley, PhD and Elizabeth Meyer, PhD, Behavioral Neuroscience

What you know to expect after your brain realizes it’s no longer in prego-mode is known colloquially as ‘mommy brain.’

No, you don’t need to own a minivan or rock mom-jeans to suffer from mommy brain! This state of mind is induced by hormonal changes, and research has found “learning and memory skills can be improved by bearing and nurturing offspring.” Emotional intelligence for the win!

What probably no one has told you about, though, is the natural successor of pregnancy brain — ‘breastfeeding brain.’

In the book The Female Brain, author Louann Brizendine, MD wrote:

“…one down side of breast feeding can be a lack of mental focus. Although a fuzzy brained state is pretty common after giving birth, breast feeding can heighten and prolong this mellow… unfocused state…the parts of the brain responsible for focus and concentration are preoccupied with protecting and tracking the newborn.

“Many mothers suffer ‘withdrawal’ symptoms when they’re physically separated from their babies, feeling fear, anxiety, and even waves of panic. It is now recognized that this is more than a psychological state but is a neurochemical state…The longer and more often a baby suckles, the more it triggers the prolactin-oxytocin response in the mommy brain…Oxytocin dilates blood vessels in the mother’s chest, warming her nursing child, who also gets doses of feel good compounds in the breast milk…”

Though things might still seem a bit fuzzy, breastfeeding actually hastens replacement of cells lost during pregnancy. Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Ratey found that lactating mothers had more glial cells (which help derive neuron energy and dispose of waste product) than those who did not breastfeed.


Making use of my glial cells…


You Feel Totally ‘All-Touched-Out’

This can be hard to explain to someone who has never been pregnant, who has never exclusively breastfed, who hasn’t been the main nourishment station for multiple kids, or who has never nearly drowned in an ocean of hormonal riptides when they were just expecting to get their toes wet.

It can be especially hard to explain when the last of your patience has been kidnapped by, well, a young child’s overwhelming need for intense intimacy. Though it can be a challenge to put into words, you may be surprised to discover it’s not impossible to understand the physical sensation and emotion overload of ‘all-touched-out.’

Read my post: “Can I jump out of my skin yet, please?



Breastfeeding Permanently Changes Your Brain Chemistry

In awesome ways, of course! And it begins when your body morphs instantly into that of a mother.

In a classic experiment by Carl J. Warden, the motivation of rats was tested by placing a a ‘goal box’ on the other side of an electrified grid. The box would contain something of which the subject rats been deprived for up to three days, such as water, food, a companion of the opposite sex, and babies. Mother rats crossed the electrified grid more times to reach their babies than other rats did to satisfy their thirst, hunger, or drive for sex. The persistence of maternal instinct is strong with this one, you see.

An article by The Alpha Parent (AP) shares some fascinating insights into how breastfeeding — the natural continuation of the maternal reproductive cycle after birth — alters a woman’s brain both in the short-term and long-term.

Here are some interesting points followed by quoted highlights from the article “How Breastfeeding Changes Your Brain” and other sources:

  • Breastfeeding forges new neurochemical pathways in the brain.

“When you breastfeed, you are relating to this little person in a way you have never related to anyone else in your life. The process of a baby suckling at the breast actually forges new neurochemical pathways in the mother’s brain that create and reinforce maternal behaviour. This process is aided by chemical imprinting and huge increases in oxytocin. These changes result in a motivated, highly attentive, and aggressively protective brain that compels the breastfeeding mother to alter her responses and priorities in life (Hahn-Holbrook 2011).” – AP

  • Breastfeeding makes mothers hormonal…in a good way! Oxytocin (the feel-good ‘bonding hormone’) and prolactin (the ‘parenting hormone’) are elevated in the blood at eight times normal levels in a mother when her baby breastfeeds, triggering rushes of dopamine (the ‘reward hormone’).

“When a mother nurses, not only do her blood oxytocin levels increase, but her body makes more receptors, permanently increasing her feelings of love – and her ability to feel loved. Mom’s sensitivity to oxytocin’s power is one of the most fundamental ways she changes as a new mother. In humans, we have oxytocin receptors snuggled within our breast tissue. [Studies found that] breastfeeding women tend to be less reactive to stress hormones, less physically tense, less suspicious, and less bored. They are also calmer and more sociable when tested for these traits than mothers of comparable ages who are not breastfeeding.” – AP

“When a baby grasps its mother’s breast with tiny hands and sucks on her areola, it triggers explosive bursts of oxytocin and prolactin, prompting bursts of dopamine, in the mother’s brain. Prolactin is detected by a sensitive area on each milk-making cell and has the effect of priming them, or switching them on. Breast milk then begins to flow. These ‘receptors’ are much, MUCH stronger in lactating mammals than non-lactating mammals (Tzanou et al 2007). When these receptors are stimulated they make the mother want to protect her baby and hold him close.” – AP

“Female rats inhibited from producing oxytocin after giving birth do not exhibit typical maternal behaviour (Van-Leengoed 1987)… human mothers who formula feed are literally inhibiting their oxytocin production, lack of lactation is literally stunting their maternal brain circuits.” – AP

  • Breastfeeding changes a woman’s response to stress. Most breastfeeding mothers’ responses to stress are not ‘fight-or-flight’ (as commonly seen in men) but  instead ‘tend-and-befriend.’

“[B]reastfeeding moms’ antistress systems are frequently activated and they are buffered. Oxytocin is Mother Nature’s weapon against stress, an innate mechanism that mammal mothers enjoy so that stress doesn’t interfere – and least not too much – with mental function. [Stress expert] Robert Sapolsky…remarked: ‘Somehow mammals have worked this out, because cognition is a good thing to have when you have small dependents.'” – AP

  • Breastfeeding is shown to be more rewarding and addictive to the brain than cocaine. Well, for lactating rats anyway (rats are used in scientific studies in situations where using humans would be unethical. The brain chemistry of rats is considered relatable to that of humans). In this study, when given the choice, lactating rats chose pup suckling over a hit of cocaine every time, even though they’d been previously exposed to cocaine and their bodies were primed to recognize its highly addictive properties. Virgin female rats showed a “robust positive” change in the reward center of the brain in response to cocaine, but lactating mother rats showed a “predominately negative” change in the same area of the brain when given cocaine. Interestingly, virgin female rats who were trained to self-administer cocaine measurably reduced their cocaine usage after breeding and beginning breastfeeding.

“Introduction of a highly addictive drug such as cocaine into a critical reproductive period of social bonding might be expected to usurp or disrupt the natural stimulus–reward relationship between pups and dams… Instead, evolution may have provided dams with a resistance against competing hedonic stimuli during early lactation, assuring the salience of pup seeking over other rewards…” – Ferris et al

  • Breastfeeding makes mothers more empathetic. In a Yale study of a group of mothers (half were formula-feeders and half were breastfeeders) it was found by MRI brain scans that breastfeeding mothers had a significantly stronger response to their babies’ cries.

“Greater activity was revealed in several brain regions, including the superior frontal gyrus, striatum and amygdala. The researchers hypothesised that high activity in these regions contributes to breastfeeding mothers’ ability to understand how their babies are feeling and respond in an appropriate way (Kim et al 2011).” – AP

“Breastfeeding mothers show improved memory for human faces, in particular happy faces (Rimmele et al 2009; Guastella 2008). They also show improved recognition for positive social cues (Unkelbach 2008; Marsh 2010) and improved recognition of fear in others (Shofty 2010).” – AP

  • Breastfeeding enhances a mother’s intelligence. The Alpha Parent also mentioned two neuroscientists who found evidence that “the cortex of a mother rat, the area devoted to the trunk, or chest, had actually doubled in size while that rat was breastfeeding.”
“It is probable that human lactation results in substantial representational remodeling in most or all of more than 10 different somatosensory representational areas, as well as in a number of motor and premotor zones” – Stern and Merzenich 1994

“Studies on animals strongly suggest that breastfeeding re-plots the map of the brain. When my baby son lay on my chest, he had direct impact on my sensory hormunculus. With repeated input from suckling and nestling, my chest, which used to be a purely aesthetic part of my personal repertoire, had acquired a leading role in the nurturing of another human being – and also in the way I was imagining myself, interpreting the world, and learning to behave” – Katherine Ellison

“[B]reastfeeding forces moms to use certain talents up-close, constantly and repetitively. And, unlike the mental challenges of studying or working at a job, it’s much harder to check out for any length of time when you’re on the spot for nourishing.” – AP

  • Breastfeeding makes mothers more efficient. In another study, rats were temporarily deprived of food and then provided crickets, which they needed to capture to eat. Lactating rats captured the crickets in less than a quarter of the amount of time it took non-lactating rats! Also, ‘Long-lasting, long-term potentiation’ or L-LTP, is found in the hippocampi brain area in lactating mammals and serves as a foundation for long-term memory. The Alpha Parent noted that “the breastfeeding rats’ gains in learning and memory were lasting up to twenty-four months, a full eighteen months past their last litter, and the equivalent of about 80 years of age for a human!”

“The lactating brain expresses a great deal of plasticity and creativity in service to, and in support of, reproduction. In other words, mothers are not born, they are made through breastfeeding.” – Kinsley and Lambert 2006