May 14, 2009
Perks of motherhood
Experts have found that becoming a mum makes women smarter, feel better and look more radiant. POON CHIAN HUI reports
Some women may bemoan the sacrifices they have to make for motherhood but some experts have found that becoming a mum may be more rewarding than one expects. For one, it may make you smarter.
A study in the United States last November found that mother rats performed better on learning and memory tests than female rats that have not had babies. Led by Professor Craig Kinsley of the University of Richmond, a key finding was that the mother rats had new clusters of brain cells.
Dr Cornelia Chee, a consultant at the department of psychological medicine at the National University Hospital (NUH), reasoned that this phenomenon of neuroplasticity - where the brain reorganises itself by forming new neural links - could be due to the fact that mothers need to ensure the survival of their offspring.
'The mother rats need to be better at finding and bringing back food, so some aspects of learning is enhanced by motherhood,' said Dr Chee, who is also the director of the women's emotional health service at NUH. She added that these rewards of motherhood could be applicable to humans too.
Her view is similar to that of Ms Katherine Ellison, an American journalist and author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, in which she detailed how studies have shown that motherhood improves perception, resilience, efficiency, motivation and emotional intelligence in women.
Also, some of the hormones that increase during pregnancy are associated with better mental well-being. Oestrogen, which tends to enhance mood, climbs gradually during pregnancy and peaks during birth, said Dr Chee.
Dr Helen Chen, the head of the mental wellness service at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, agrees.
'Oestrogen is the feel-good hormone for women,' she said. 'It also gives pregnant women a glow.' This glow refers to their more radiant complexion and shinier hair.
However, both doctors pointed out that while oestrogen may have positive effects, it is subjected to the intricate network of hormones and brain chemicals. For instance, serotonin also regulates mood and low levels of serotonin may reduce the feel-good effects of oestrogen.
Breastfeeding is rewarding due partly to the hormone oxytocin which is released in spurts. It has a relaxing effect on mothers which helps to reduce tension and stress and cement the mother-child bond, doctors explained. They added that breastfeeding also helps mothers to lose weight faster and cut their risk of breast cancer.
The good news is that these positive effects do not end once you stop breastfeeding. 'Women who have stopped breastfeeding can have high levels of oxytocin when they touch, look and spend time with their baby,' said Dr Chee.
Another class of chemicals that come into play are stress hormones. While pregnant women experience higher levels of hormones that are associated with stress - namely cortisol and adrenaline - it is not all that bad, said Dr Chen.
'Stress is only bad when it's excessive and occurs over a prolonged period,' she explained. Otherwise, this strain can be eustress or healthy stress, which gives one a sense of fulfilment and stimulate one's psychological growth, she said.
The downside is when hormonal effects spiral out of control. 'Some women are particularly susceptible to the hormonal effects of mood and anxiety,' said Dr Chee. 'In some cases, this anxiety can take a life of its own.'
The result may be perinatal mood and anxiety disorders like depression. Dr Chen estimates that about 10 per cent of women suffer from depression during pregnancy.
To combat excessive stress, she advises mothers-to-be to plan well for the birth, get enough rest, exercise to relax and avoid habits like drinking coffee and smoking. Seek support from family and friends and do not hesitate to get professional help if you feel constantly down, she added.
BREASTFEEDING GOOD FOR MUMS
We know that it is good for babies. However, breastfeeding is good for mothers too.
Dr Yvonne Ng, a lactation consultant at the department of neonatology at the National University Hospital (NUH), tells Mind Your Body how breastfeeding can benefit a mother's physical and mental well-being.
Recovery from birth
The hormone oxytocin that is released during breastfeeding stimulates the uterus, which is enlarged during pregnancy, to contract.
Oxytocin also helps to reduce postpartum haemorrhage or bleeding after delivery. Postpartum haemorrhage can be vaginal or internal and is a major cause of maternal deaths, although this is very rare in Singapore.
Reduced risks of illnesses
Long-term breastfeeding reduces risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as osteoporosis.
When a baby latches on to breastfeed, it allows the mother to settle down, rest and relax with her child.
The physical closeness during breastfeeding and the knowledge that breastfeeding has contributed to the growth and development of the child, aids in bonding between mother and child. This bonding can be very satisfying for mothers.
Reduced anxiety over baby
Breastfed babies are generally healthier in their first year of life. They have fewer episodes of illnesses such as respiratory tract infections, which normally generate some parental anxiety.