Baby Brain and Mommy Brain ‹ A Dynamic Pas de Deux

‹by Noelle Robbins

From our earliest moments, months before we are born, our brains are busy
growing connections and pathways that will help determine who we are. With
our genetic codes in place, awash in a sea of hormones as we rock in the
dark of our mothers' wombs, we become boys or girls, male or female.

And for those of us born female, and who become mothers, a delicate dance
unfolds, binding us not only to our mothers and daughters, but to
generations past and generations to come. It is this dance that author,
researcher and physician Louann Brizendine explores in her newly released
book, The Female Brain.

Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San
Francisco and the founder of the Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone
Clinic, has long been intrigued with what makes us unique as females, and
how early the process starts that sets us on our life-long path of
biological and social identity.

According to scientific findings detailed in an engaging, accessible fashion
in The Female Brain, the process starts very early indeed. In fact, it is
during the first 18 weeks of pregnancy that waves of hormones determine
whether a baby's brain becomes male or female. "Until eight weeks old, every
fetal brain looks female." And then, in male babies, a huge flow of
testosterone actually kills off brain cells in the communication centers and
fosters growth of cells in the parts of the brain that support aggression
and sex. The female baby brain, absent this male hormone bath, "sprouts more
connections in the communication centers and areas that process emotion."

Brizendine clearly lays out the facts. "Although we were taught that sex
differences mostly came from how your parents raised you as a boy or girl ‹
we now know that's not completely true," she writes. "There is no unisex
brain. Girls arrive already wired as girls, and boys arrive already wired as

In conversation, Brizendine acknowledges that this discovery took her by
surprise. As an ardent feminist, she knew that her findings amounted to
"feminist heresy" by suggesting real biological differences between males
and females in utero. Men and women are not equal when it comes to brain
biology and Brizendine sees this as a good thing. "Where once I felt the
need to overthrow oppressive male forces in society, I now see a rich woven
tapestry and interaction between male and female," she says. "When we see
reality, we see that society and culture are built around biology."

Brizendine emphasizes in her book that awareness of how baby girls' brains
are wired differently than boys' brains before birth, and the impact that
wiring has on growth and development, can play a crucial role in how we can
raise our next female generations to succeed in a biologically structured

For example, she describes how baby girls "come out wired for mutual gazing.
Over the first three months of life, a baby girl's skills in eye contact and
mutual face gazing will increase by over 400 percent, whereas facial gazing
skills in boys during this time will not increase at all. Baby girls are
born interested in emotional expression." From day one, baby girls are
designed to pick up and process subtle emotional cues that confirm their
worthiness and lovability and build empathy skills.

Equally important, according to Brizendine, is the special interaction
between baby girls and their mothers, an interaction that starts with the
birth of the "mommy brain." For as baby girls are busy in utero growing
female brains, mommy brains are also undergoing rapid hormone-triggered
changes which prepare them for their new roles. "Throughout pregnancy, a
woman's brain is marinated in neurohormones manufactured by her fetus and
placenta." The result is a mellow but aware mommy brain attuned to safety
and nutrition, not necessarily business meetings and reports.

Immediately following birth, mommy brains kick into high gear with enhanced
senses and protective instincts. Even adoptive mothers, with high levels of
skin-to-skin contact with their babies, can experience these same hormonal
surges that support the mother/baby bond, and the same foggy mental state
that can hamper effectiveness at work.

Brizendine cautions new mommies about letting professional performance
concerns create stress which not only can interfere with mommy/baby girl
bonding, but can affect the ability of a little girl to mother her own
little girl. According to her research, baby girls resonate more easily with
their mothers, responding to efforts to soothe and calm crying and fussy
behavior. This can be a good thing, or a little scary, when Brizendine goes
on to note that "because of her ability to observe emotional cues a girl
actually incorporates her mother's nervous system into her own," and that
"the 'nervous system environment' a girl absorbs during the first 24 months
becomes a view of reality that will affect her for the rest of her life."
Talk about guilt inducing.

And Brizendine knows about this guilt first hand. "This book was very
painful to write," she says, "as I relived my own pregnancy and baby-rearing
experiences." She knows on a deeply personal level the conflict that can
arise between the "profound joy, pleasure and intense attachment" many women
feel with their newborns and the desire to return to the work environment,
"which actually may be more relaxing with its structure and sense of
control." She has been there herself, and has conducted workshops with many
new moms who, perceiving themselves as competent and organized
businesswomen, are completely thrown for a loop by their new

But never fear. Brizendine is quick to reassure new moms. "While stress can
definitely be biologically transmitted from mommy to baby," she says, "three
years of a low-stress family life can be a great healer." Her words of
advice for businesswomen contemplating or engaged in the mommy/baby dance?
Nurture your new mommy brain and your new baby's, "by creating a predictable
and efficient environment at work and home with a good support system." Then
relax, and enjoy the mommy/baby pas de deux.
Noelle Robbins is a USC Health Journalism Fellow and a freelance writer
specializing in women's health and lifestyle issues
Contact her at [email protected].
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