Researchers at the University of London found that pregnant women show increased activity in the area of the brain related to emotional skills.
During pregnancy, women use the right side of their brain more than new mothers do, as they prepare to bond with their babies, it was found.
“Our findings give us a significant insight into the ‘baby brain’ phenomenon that makes a woman more sensitive during the child bearing process,” said Dr Victoria Bourne, from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway.
Researchers examined the brain activity of 39 pregnant women and new mothers as they looked at images of adult and baby faces making either positive or negative expressions.
The results showed that pregnant women used the right side of their brain more than new mothers, particularly when processing positive emotions.
The study used a faces test which uses images made of one half of a neutral face combined with one half of an emotive face to see which side of the participants’ brain is used to process positive and negative emotions.
Dr Bourne said, “We know from previous research that pregnant women and new mothers are more sensitive to emotional expressions, particularly when looking at babies’ faces.
We also know that new mothers who demonstrate symptoms of post-natal depression sometimes interpret their baby’s emotional expressions as more negative than they really are.
Discovering the neuropsychological processes that may underpin these changes is a key step towards understanding how they might influence a mother’s bonding with her baby.”
Previous studies have suggested that women’s brains change during pregnancy so that they will be better able to concentrate on their newborn’s needs after the birth.
Psychologists at Chapman University, California, claim that these changes may be brought about by massive fluctuations in women’s hormones as well as tiny movements by the foetus.
The research was presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in Birmingham.