It is no surprise that after an experience as all-consuming as pregnancy, a woman’s body will never be the same. There may be stretch marks, the texture of her hair may change, and she may even develop allergies. After my first pregnancy, my eyes got bigger to the point that I needed a new contact lens prescription to alleviate headaches.
The changes are more than skin-deep, of course. While there are plenty of (sometimes surprising) inconveniences to lament, most women say these are worth the joy of bearing and raising children. But studies show there’s even more to it than that. Here’s to the bonuses of carrying babies.
01. Bigger Brain
I can say from experience that “mommy brain”—the phenomenon of forgetting details like names and dates once baby comes along—is real, but there’s another side to that neurological coin. A study comparing brain scans of women a few weeks postpartum and again three or four months later showed “a small but significant amount of growth in a number of brain regions, including the hypothalamus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala.” These areas play roles in planning, foresight, emotion regulation, motivation, and reward behavior, all of which help the mother care for her child—in laywoman’s terms, the “maternal instinct.” These strengths also apply to other areas of life, like work, managing a household, and maintaining relationships. Preliminary studies in other mammals shows that, “mothers’ brains remain altered for the rest of their lives.” The same may hold true for humans.
02. Greater Empathy and Stronger Relationships
In her research for the book The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, author Katherine Ellison found evidence that this rewiring of the brain teaches mothers “empathy skills . . . that they can later take out into the world at large.” Lasting relationships have their own benefits. Ellison says, “we know that seniors who are more connected to the outside world, especially through their children and grandchildren, are often healthier—mentally and physically—than those who are isolated. So motherhood continues to pay off late in life.” Research has likewise shown that “belonging to a strong social network correlates with better mental functioning” and can help “ward off postpartum depression.”
03. Increased Productivity
A study of parents in high-level academia showed that, “Mothers of at least two children are, on average, more productive than mothers of only one child, and mothers, in general, are more productive than childless women.” What’s even better is that the same held true for the fathers in the study. The study has its caveats (we aren’t all academic economists), but the truth at its core is relevant to other fields. Even at home, parents must learn to multi-task, and the skill carries over to the office, studio, or job site. Working parents have good reason to do their work well and efficiently—after all, the future generation is literally looking up to them.
04. Decreased Risk of Disease
Childbearing means decreased risks of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and heart disease through decreased ovulation, breastfeeding, and higher levels of estrogen, respectively. A study in Australia also shows that “having a baby cuts your risk of developing [multiple sclerosis] in half,” with “each pregnancy [offering] even more protection.” Lower immune activity during pregnancy “can reduce the inflammation that causes nerve damage” in women with this condition, and may reduce the risk of a relapse.
In addition, scientists are studying the cells that are exchanged between mother and baby via the placenta. Fetal material including “DNA from the fetus, tiny pieces of the placenta and potent fetal cells . . . travel around the mom's bloodstream and sneak into her organs” during pregnancy. These cells may help the mother recover after birth, reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer, and could protect the mother in cases of autoimmune diseases.
05. Easier Periods
Menstrual cramps are generally manageable when compared with contractions during labor, but they’re still no picnic. Because “childbirth eliminates some of the prostaglandin receptor sites in the uterus [which] . . . play a role in monthly menstrual pain,” you may have less painful periods once Aunt Flo makes her post-partum reappearance. Researchers aren’t sure why, but “Some women...find that menstrual pain ceases altogether after pregnancy and childbirth.”
06. Healthier Lifestyle
Real, lasting change requires proper motivation—and creating a new life is a pretty good reason to tackle unhealthy habits. As Maria Walley wrote here at Verily, “we can...argue that housing a growing human in one’s womb is a huge motivator for a woman to get her health in order.” A study on women with diabetes (Types I and II) showed their making “good use of pregnancy to learn how to better manage their disease” and maintaining these habits in their postpartum lifestyles. Whether that means eating better, moving more, or spending more time outside, it’s good news for everybody involved.
07. Better Body Image
We recently asked mothers to share their experiences with labor and delivery. Awe at their inner strength and confidence in their bodies was a common theme. One woman said, “After delivering my baby, I felt like superwoman; I could have lifted a car. I'm not a person who is particularly proud of my body on most days, but on that day, I was in awe at what it was capable of.”
While enduring the mental, physical, and emotional tolls of pregnancy can seem a burden, the good news is that those months carrying a baby are not the end of the story. For mother and child alike, it’s just the beginning.
Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography