How parents’ brains are rewired to nurture, protect and guide

Parental reactions are also the building blocks of children’s brain development

Since becoming a parent, I’ve had a recurring dream. Similar to the falling dream, it jolts me out of a deep sleep with rocking muscle spasms and a racing heart. This dream usually involves me dropping or being unable to catch either of my two children.

I wake the moment impact is imminent.

It’s safe to say, these dreams, in whatever form they play out, are the internal insecurities of my parenthood. They also highlight to me the shift in our thinking, acting and nurturing as almost everything we do as parents becomes so intrinsically connected to our children. Even dreaming. The fact is, when we become parents, our brain structure alters in a way to better support us and our offspring in these highly challenging days.

Pregnancy and early motherhood represent the most dynamic change as mothers grow, birth and take care of a newborn. Research has uncovered that new mothers become more vigilant to threats and have a greater sensitivity to infant cues, along with an increased attachment to their babies as our brains respond to the new vibrancy of motherhood. This psychological adaptation of heightened maternal sensitivity reinforces our ability to care for our children.

Evidence also shows that a father’s brain undergoes a radical change with the birth of a child. An increase in the brain’s grey matter highlights changes in parenting behaviour and connections meaning the transformation to parenthood is not solely connected to the person who gave birth but rather reinforced by the act of parenting itself. Studies using structural MRI have routinely confirmed the fundamental growth of the parental brain with increases in grey matter observed in processing areas involving sensory and social information. These changes heavily support our adaptation to parenting, which makes sense when we haven’t slept in days and still feel a warm flood of love as we watch the baby nap. This is nature expertly rewiring our behaviours for the good of preserving humanity.

That is, of course, not to say that bonding will be immediate, that we will know how to soothe an unsettled baby or that imaginary play will become second nature. Much of that comes with time, support and practice. The transition to parenthood is a unique experience despite also being a shared one. Everyone reacts differently to these alterations of grey matter.

Fostering connection

The transition to parenthood is not subtle. We are thrown into sleepless or broken nights, constant nurturing and an intensely overwhelming situation. Adapting to parenthood is mentally and physically exhausting, but the changes in our brain support the transition. The primary focus of these alterations is to foster and develop the parent-child connection. This manipulation and encouragement of social connections with our babies are needed for their development.

"The developing infant's social/emotional right brain is grown and shaped by the social/emotional right brain of their parents," says Joanna Fortune, a psychotherapist and author of 15-Minute Parenting. "The connection between parent and infant, especially in the first year of life, plays a crucial role in shaping the infant's brain."

Born with 25 per cent of the volume of an adult brain, a newborn’s brain wants and is willing to develop. In fact, in one year, a baby’s brain will rapidly grow and continue at a fierce rate up to the age of five in comparison to any other stage of their development. This early growth leaves a lasting impression on their ability to learn and grow throughout their life. It shapes how their brain develops.

As our parental brains are attuned to that of our newborn, the changes that have taken place are perfectly suited to encourage connection. When infants receive a level of care that naturally connects them with their caregivers, their wellbeing and social skills develop quickly and lay the foundations for their early years.

Play has a central role in our children’s development. As Fortune says, “research shows that neurons fire and develop as a child is playfully interacted with by their main caregiver. Such interactions don’t just positively influence the psychology and emotional development of a young child but have been shown to affect the development of their young brain as well.”

Loving relationships

It is in the loving relationships with the adults in their lives that children are heavily influenced. As responsive and dependable parents we nurture their growth and development through responding to their coos, smiles and cries. Our reactions and responses are the building blocks of brain development.

“Research shows that reading and responding to an infant’s cues is more important to brain development than any structured learning activity,” says Fortune. “Just as early caregiving responses are important to the infant’s developing brain, new mothers’ brains also undergo neurobiological changes that further support the attunement required for the relationship to fully develop. Changes in the parental brain enable sensitive responses to infants.

“For example, the sound of an infant crying or a photo of an infant activates various brain regions (associated with regulation, emotional response and executive functioning and the circuits that activate parental empathy and sensitivity) in the parent.”

As parents, we are more adaptive than we may give ourselves credit for.

Our brains are quite literally altering even before our children are born so that we can give them the best possible start in life. So, while I may still wake with a terrifying start believing my kids are falling from a high windowsill and throw my arms out to catch nothing but the air in the dark, those dreams tell me that the wires in my brain have been somewhat tweaked to be forever prepared to nurture, protect and guide my kids.