Mother’s Instinct

A Mother’s Day Special Blog: The Science of Maternal Instincts

As we come close to mothers day we are all given the chance to reflect on the amazing mothers out there, and mothers themselves can reflect on their own experience of motherhood. Especially through pregnancy and into the first year of motherhood there are significant adaptations in the mother’s brain prompted by hormonal changes. Activity increases in the regions that control empathy, anxiety and social interaction such as the prefrontal cortex, midbrain and parietal lobes. These changes contribute to those feelings of overwhelming love, fierce protectiveness and constant worry.

One area of the brain has been of particular interest when studying postpartum mothers: the amygdala. This small region of neurons helps process memory and drives emotional reactions such as fear, anxiety and aggression. After giving birth for the first time the amygdala grows and this helps the mother to bond to the baby and to be hypersensitive to its needs. The amygdala rewards the mother with happy hormones to motivate mothering behaviours (not unlike training a puppy!). Fathers also experience these rewards for paternal behaviour such as moving their baby around and presenting objects to them. There are unfortunately also down sides to these neural adaptations; likely these heightened states of alertness contribute to post-natal depression and anxiety.

So really all our mothers’ love boils down to is a few hormones and neurons… and her sleepless nights, her pearls of wisdom, her sacrifices, the safety she builds around you, and her always being ready to drop anything to come to your side. This mother’s day lets all do something thoughtful and special for our mums, and to the mums out there allow yourself to be appreciated for all the hard work those pesky hormones conned you into.


Written by Steph Folley