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The Amazing Amygdala: How Pregnancy Shapes the Brain of All Expectant Parents

Pregnancy is a miraculous journey that not only transforms the identity of the birthing person but also has intriguing effects on the brains of all partners. While much attention has been given to the physiological changes during pregnancy, recent research has delved into the fascinating world of neurobiology, uncovering how the Amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain – changes in response to impending parenthood.

The Amygdala, a pair of almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep within the brain's temporal lobes, is known for its critical role in processing emotions, particularly fear and pleasure. It acts as an emotional thermostat, regulating responses to various stimuli and influencing decision-making.

Studies have shown that both expectant mothers and fathers experience changes in their Amygdala during pregnancy. Still, the focus here is on the partner's Amygdala – often overshadowed by the intense hormonal and neurological shifts in the pregnant person.

Partners with more growth in the Amygdala and hypothalamus were less likely to experience depressive symptoms. 

If the Amygdala helps regulate emotions, then it would make sense that this change, combined with the changes in hormones (oxytocin synchronicity in both partners & a drop in testosterone near birth in male partners), help to change behaviour and initiate a chemical bond between the partners and later on, with the baby. 

 

Things we can do to work with our Biology

·         Skin-to-skin - this is not just for babies; partners regularly having skin-to-skin contact such as massages and hugs can boost oxytocin, reducing stress levels, which helps calm your Amygdala.

·         Drink lots of water.

·         Eat a healthy, balance diet.

·         Getting enough sleep and rest.

 

Another thing that happens to partners in the last few weeks of pregnancy is a rise in prolactin levels. According to this study, first time fathers (in this case cis-men) showed higher levels of prolactin before the birth, which further increased in the first few weeks and remained consistently higher than usual for the first 6 months after the birth. These higher levels correlated with lower stress levels and “positive attitudes towards fatherhood”. Not only that, but MRI scans showed physical changes in the brain of the father.

 

Overall, these changes are designed to, and usually have, a positive influence on the preparation of the partner’s brain which helps them to be more involved in the planning process and also more ready for their imminent parenting role.


But just like the birthing person, some of these brain changes might bring about some less positive side effects. For example, increased levels of anxiety. The perinatal mental health support available on the NHS is not always geared towards the partner or the rest of the family. But there are services available and if you are a partner experiencing more anxiety/stress/sleep difficulty than normal, please reach out to your GP or local mental health services for guidance on what is available in your area.

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