How giving birth changes your brain

  • A new mother experiences many changes after giving birth. Some of the biggest happen in her brain.
  • When she first sees her newborn, core regions of her brain’s reward network kick in, giving her an instant connection to her baby.
  • Fathers also experience changes their brains when they spend quality time with their babies.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

A woman’s uterus grows to over 500 times its normal size during pregnancy. But not all changes are visible. In fact, some of the biggest changes happen in her brain.

When a mother sees her newborn for the first time, it’s love at first sight, literally. That’s because once she gives birth, core regions of her brain’s reward network kick in. They signal the release of feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin into her blood, which immediately triggers a strong connection of love and devotion to her newborn. In fact, studies show that recent mothers have similar levels of oxytocin as romantic couples who are newly in love.

And human moms aren’t alone here. Scientists discovered that rodents got a bigger kick of dopamine from feeding their pups than from receiving injections of cocaine. What’s more, brain scans reveal that a human mom has a similar experience when she sees her infant smiling.

But it’s a different story when her baby is crying. Those cries activate a network in the mom’s brain known as the emotion regulation network. It includes the prefrontal and cingulate control systems, which help control her emotions. And that’s important since it can be easy to lose your temper when you’re running on very little sleep and are distressed by the baby’s cries.

And while motherhood can be exhausting, new moms are actually more alert than normal thanks to their brain’s salience network. Scientists think giving birth activates this network to help a mother detect threats and protect her infant from harm, especially in dangerous situations when that network can help ramp up adrenaline.

But on a daily basis, Mom needs to understand her newborn’s needs. To accomplish that, she uses empathy, which comes from her brain’s social network. It involves the insular and amygdala, which researchers found became more active when moms looked at photos of their babies in distress compared to neutral photos.

But it’s not just the mom’s brain that changes. Research shows that a dad’s brain releases oxytocin when he interacts with his baby too. This is often accompanied by a surge of another hormone: prolactin. It’s often called the milk hormone because it triggers the production of breast milk, but men can produce it too, and researchers have found that dads who frequently played with their babies had higher prolactin levels in their blood than fathers who didn’t. They were also more responsive to their baby’s cries.

So in the end, having a child is a big change. Not just for your lifestyle, for your brain too.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2019.

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Pregnant people who get COVID-19 may pass their babies disease-fighting antibodies in the womb, study suggests

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A medical worker examines a newborn at a maternity hospital in Volgograd, Russia on January 13, 2021.

  • A new study found that 87% of new mothers who had detectable COVID-19 antibodies shared them with their newborns through the umbilical cord.
  • The find suggests it’s possible that newborn babies can confer some protective COVID-19 immunity from a mother’s infection during pregnancy.
  • It also raises questions about whether vaccinating pregnant people might help protect their babies from infections after birth.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Pregnant people who get COVID-19 may pass some disease-fighting benefits along to their babies, a new study published Friday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests.

The study measured COVID-19 antibodies in 83 new mothers at a Pennsylvania hospital last year, and found 87% of their newborns developed measurable antibodies in their umbilical cords. The antibodies popped up both in the cords of babies whose mothers had coronavirus symptoms, and those who had none. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that newborns whose mothers have had COVID-19 will be immune to the novel coronavirus, but it is a sign that they could have some form of protection against future infections, especially during their first months of life.

The study also found that people who’d had COVID-19 earlier on in their pregnancy had a better chance of transferring antibodies across the placenta to their fetus. This aligns with what we know about how long it can take a person’s body to develop antibodies after any coronavirus infection: typically, at least 1-3 weeks.

The study raises questions about whether vaccinating pregnant women against COVID-19 could help protect their newborns

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Nurses care for a newborn at Diaconesses Hospital in Paris on November 17, 2020.

Given that it’s possible that mothers who’ve had COVID could pass on some level of viral protection to their babies, it’s also possible that “maternal vaccination could do the same,” Dr. Flor Munoz, an infectious disease expert from Baylor College of Medicine, said in an editorial that accompanied the study’s release on Friday.

Maternal vaccination during pregnancy is already how many newborns are temporarily protected from other dangerous but vaccine-preventable diseases, including influenza, and whooping cough.

It’s not clear yet if that would be the case with COVID-19, but it’s an important question to consider, given that there are no coronavirus vaccines authorized for babies or children so far.

Munoz suggested that “maternal vaccination starting in the early second trimester” might be the best time, in order to help protect the baby as well as the mother from future infection.

“The timing of maternal vaccination to protect the infant, as opposed to the mother alone, would necessitate an adequate interval from vaccination to delivery (of at least 4 weeks),” Munoz added.

Data on pregnant women and COVID-19 vaccines are scarce

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A health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to a pregnant woman at Clalit Health Services, in Tel Aviv on January 23, 2021.

Because pregnant people were intentionally left out of many COVID-19 vaccine trials, there’s still not enough data to definitively rule coronavirus vaccines are safe for expectant mothers.

“There is no data that suggests these vaccines cause harm in pregnant women – but there just isn’t a lot of data,” immunologist Scott Hensley, who co-authored the study, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Both the US Centers for Disease Control and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) say if pregnant women want a vaccine, and are in a priority position to get one (i.e. healthcare workers, teachers), they should feel free to go ahead.

Dr. Mark Turrentine, a member of the COVID-19 expert group at the ACOG told the New York Times this new study shows how important it is to include more pregnant women in future vaccine trials, “particularly when the benefit of vaccination is greater than the potential risk of a life-threatening disease.”

Pregnant people who contract COVID-19 are at slightly greater risk of developing severe and fatal coronavirus infections. If you’re pregnant and wondering whether you should take a coronavirus vaccine, talk to your doctor or vaccine administrator about it.

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No, the coronavirus vaccine won’t make you infertile

chicago coronavirus vaccine
Dr. Marina Del Rios, from University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System, receives Chicago’s first COVID-19 vaccination from Dr. Nikhila Juvvadi on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, at Loretto Hospital, a 122-bed medical facility in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

  • A now-blocked Facebook post that went viral claimed the coronavirus vaccine could cause infertility.
  • It suggested incorrectly that the vaccine teaches the body to attack a protein involved in placental development.
  • In reality, the protein the vaccine spurs the body to make and attack bears little resemblance to the one in the placenta. 
  • Although data is still lacking as to how the coronavirus vaccine works in pregnant women, experts expect it to be safe and say that women who are pregnant or of childbearing age should be able to get it if they want. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A post that was circulating on social media falsely claimed that Pfizer’s new coronavirus vaccine could cause infertility in women. The vaccine is “female sterilization,” an image in the post said, incorrectly attributing the myth to the “head of Pfizer research.” 

The post, which has since been blocked by Facebook as “false information,” promoted an incorrect idea that the vaccine spurs the immune system to attack both a protein in the coronavirus and also a protein involved in the formation of the placenta – the organ that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the fetus during pregnancy. 

But experts say there’s no evidence the vaccine could lead to infertility.

“Based on the way it’s made, it should be safe,” Dr. Zaher Merhi, an OB-GYN, reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist, and the founder of Rejuvenating Fertility Center, told Insider. 

Screen Shot of infertility vaccine myth

The protein the vaccine teaches the body to fend off is not the same as the one involved in placental formation

According to USA Today, the post, written by an unidentifiable author, said: “The vaccine contains a spike protein (see image) called syncytin-1, vital for the formation of the human placenta in women.” 

“If the vaccine works so that we form an immune response AGAINST the spike protein, we are also training the female body to attack syncytin-1, which could lead to infertility for an unspecified duration.”

That’s not true. First, the vaccine does not contain syncytin-1, but rather mRNA: genetic instructions that spur the body to produce, and therefore recognize, the unique spike protein that the novel coronavirus uses to latch onto cells. 

While it’s true that syncytin-1 and the coronavirus’s spike protein share a small amino acid sequence, they are not interchangeable. 

“It has been incorrectly suggested that COVID-19 vaccines will cause infertility because of a shared amino acid sequence in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 and a placental protein,” Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts said in an email to the Associated Press. “The sequence, however, is too short to plausibly give rise to autoimmunity.”

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The theory also suggests that syncytin-1 is the one and only protein important for placental development, but it’s more complicated than that. A sibling protein, syncytin-2, for instance, helps prevent the mother’s immune system from attacking the fetus. 

Plus, the vaccine prompts the body to produce antibodies very similar to the natural ones produced in response to infection. If those antibodies attacked the placenta, we’d to see high rates of placental complications and miscarriages among the more than 44,000 pregnant women who’ve gotten the coronavirus, Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale School of Medicine, told USA TODAY

What’s more, some people have gotten pregnant while participating in clinical trials and receiving a vaccine. These women are still being tracked, but if the vaccine prevented pregnancy, their pregnancies wouldn’t have been possible. 

Pregnant women and those who may become pregnant can get the vaccine if they want to

Pregnant women were excluded from clinical trials, so we don’t know the real-world effects of the vaccine in that population. But experts say it should be safe, since the vaccine, like the flu vaccine, does not contain live virus.

The mRNA is “not going to be able to enter the cell of the baby and cause any problem, mechanistically speaking,” Merhi told Business Insider. 

As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologies (ACOG) says in its advisory about vaccination in pregnant and lactating people, “these vaccines do not enter the nucleus and do not alter human DNA in vaccine recipients. As a result, mRNA vaccines cannot cause any genetic changes.” 

The organization, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, says pregnant women who want the vaccine should be able to get it. 

People who are in prioritized vaccination groups and are actively trying to become pregnant or are contemplating pregnancy should also get vaccinated, ACOG says. There’s no need to delay pregnancy after getting the vaccine, according to the group. 

Getting COVID-19 while pregnant puts people at a higher risk of being admitted to the intensive-care unit, needing ventilators or life support, and dying than patients who aren’t pregnant, according to a November CDC report. So Dr. Rahul Gupta, chief medical and health officer at March of Dimes, previously told Insider anyone who could get pregnant should be a top priority for vaccination.

“We’ve got to make sure we make an active effort … to ensure that childbearing-age women, especially minorities, are able to get the vaccine even before they get pregnant,” he said. 

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