A newborn’s cry pierces the stillness of 4:00 a.m. as darkness loses its grip on the sky. My wife and I are bone-tired, neither of us has slept more than an hour in days, not since before we were her parents. It’s our first night home from the hospital with our first child—no nurses, no family. Although we are beyond exhausted, that cry has brought us both to full attention hour after hour—propelling us out of bed and to her side, again and again. In a few short months we will know just how to soothe her, the right touch, the right song, and when she is hungry, or wet, or cold. But tonight, we fumble, we struggle, we despair, we persevere.
That wild force that propels us to her side? It’s powered by a changing brain and a flood of potent hormones. The power of a new parent’s changing brain is often overlooked—and it’s something that needs to be understood and supported if all families and communities are to be healthy and thriving. I’m a researcher at the University of Denver and a fellow of Ascend, the Institute program focused on breaking the cycle of poverty. With my colleague Dr. Pilyoung Kim and others, I’m engaged in a new line of neuroimaging studies of the specific regions of the brain that change to support parenting.
A changing brain that drives new parents to care for their offspring while subjugating their own most basic needs for food and sleep is not unique to humans. New mother rats will choose their pup’s cry over even cocaine, though rats who aren’t parents choose cocaine over food and water. And this isn’t unique to mothers—in biparental species like humans and prairie voles, the same changes happen for new moms and new dads.
Three key changes have been documented. In the reward circuit—the part of the brain that orients us toward and motivates us to seek out things like food and sex and the part that is co-opted by drugs—there are changes in size and structure, and the brain becomes more responsive to the sounds and images of one’s own baby. More growth in the reward circuit is also related to how often parents say their infant is “beautiful” and “perfect.” In the social-information circuit—a part of the brain important for recognizing and processing social signals, and a part that operates differently when people have disorders such as autism—there is also structural growth and increased responsiveness to infant signals. Lastly, there are changes in the emotion-regulation circuit. Changes here are twofold, as optimal social responsiveness requires that you both detect and feel empathy at another’s distress and can also regulate your own distress so you can actually help. The changes here involve prefrontal control of amygdala activation. More of sensitivity that caregiving parents provide.
The transition to parenting is a sensitive period—a time of openness and a time of vulnerability. New parents are open to massive structural and functional brain reorganization, but they are also at heightened risk for stress and mood disorders. The vulnerability may be particularly heightened when new parents have a history of poor caregiving or have experienced trauma, depression, or substance-use disorders. In fact, when new parents start with any of these vulnerabilities, they may experience fewer supportive neurobiological changes, making the transition to parenting that much more challenging. When parents who are struggling in their new role say, “I’m not sure I love this baby as much as I should,” or, “When she cries, I curl up and cry, too—I’m so overwhelmed,” they may be telling us that their brains are not yet providing them the extra boost of support they need.
What can be done when the already very tough job of parenting is made that much tougher? In a new study, Dr. Kim, Dr. Phil Fisher, and I are testing just this. If science can help parents improve the core of their relationship to their babies, reduce the stress of parenting, and help them improve their parenting self-efficacy, can their brains be jump-started toward a reorganization that supports parenting?
I believe this is possible. Brains change. When people exercise and learn and grow, they build more efficient, effective, and robust brain circuits. Brain changes reflect and support people’s most important transitions—in early life, in adolescence, and during the transition to parenting. If parents can be helped to exercise their positive parenting muscles, supportive parenting brain circuitry should get stronger, too—even in those parents whose brains have been tuned to negative inputs and subject to insults. Parents need to believe that everyone has the capacity to be wonderful parents. They need to share their questions and fears with their doctors, pediatricians, and families, so they can get the support they need. And it is the responsibility of pediatricians, early childhood teachers, social workers, and anyone else who works with young families to help parents build their parenting muscles. The social fabric of families and communities depends on it.