Health & Science

“Dad brain” — how the arrival of a new baby rewires the non-birth parent’s brain

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“Mommy brain” is a well-documented phenomenon in which new moms report becoming more forgetful and having more trouble with abstract thinking, due to the influx of hormones from pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. However, a new study has revealed that “dad brain” is also a reality for the non-birth parent of a new baby. 

The study showed that the gray matter in the brain of the non-birth parent of a new baby shrinks slightly after the arrival of the newborn, which is similar to impacts on the birth parent over the same time period. The reduction in brain matter that new parents experience is thought to be a streamlining process meant to hyper-focus the brain on caregiving and responding to their new infant. 

This phenomenon happens in part thanks to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new circumstances by creating new connections between neural pathways. This “rewiring” can be helpful in moments of extreme stress or during major life changes when old patterns and ways of functioning become less helpful. 

Skills like communicating with and interpreting the needs of a nonverbal newborn are ones that the brain doesn’t need to access until the arrival of a new baby — so when the time comes, more abstract thinking skills like focus, memory, and emotional reasoning are compromised so that the brain can hone in on responding to the needs of the baby. 

This revelation that all new parents, whether they experienced pregnancy and birth or not, undergo fundamental changes to their brains is compelling evidence that benefits like paid family leave should be applied equally to people of all genders and family structures. Evidence shows that equal partnership in caregiving leads to better outcomes for the whole family.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.