Love, worry, pride, and fatigue—any mom will tell you that motherhood is a constant juggling act. It drains you dry one second and fills you with joy the next. Your body goes through tremendous changes during pregnancy. Then after the baby is born, you don’t get enough sleep for at least—well, you’ll sleep when the kid is in college, right?
Numerous studies show that mothers’ health profiles are different from those of women who have not given birth. Motherhood confers some unexpected health benefits, as well as some surprising risks—and sometimes, having a baby can be downright bizarre.
Reduced Breast Cancer Risk
In the long run, having children can provide significant health benefits. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), women who have children are less likely to develop breast cancer. Being pregnant reduces exposure to certain hormones that have been linked to breast cancer. (This has to do with the fact that menstruation stops while a woman is pregnant.) The NCI also reports that breastfeeding can reduce breast cancer risk because the “maturing” that breast cells go through in order to produce milk may prevent the cells from becoming cancerous.
Reduced Cardiovascular Disease Risk
Another health advantage for mothers who breastfeed is a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. A large 2009 study showed that mothers who breastfed for at least 12 months in their lifetime had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes than those who had never breastfed.
A Bigger Brain?
Sure, you might experience some mental fuzziness in the first few months with a newborn (a condition sometimes called “mommy brain”), but research in Canada on rat mothers shows that your brain might actually grow with each child. The hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for spatial memory and learning, actually increases in size during pregnancy and motherhood.
A Longer Life
Having children may lead to a longer life. A 2012 Australian study followed the population of a small rural town for more than 16 years. The study showed that, despite a mild increase in the risk of being overweight, having diabetes, or having hypertension, women who had given birth had a reduced risk of death during the course of the study.
The research showed an even lower risk of death in women who had more than four children. The reasons for this effect are not fully understood, but other studies (in Israel and Norway) have shown similar results.
A Higher Risk of Stress
One of the health risks associated with motherhood is stress. Mothers often rate their health as worse and their fatigue levels as higher than women without children. This is especially true if they are single parents. However, the situation is more complicated than it seems at first glance. Yes, the complications of parenthood make life seem more stressful, but biology gives mothers a chemical boost to help deal with that stress.
Oxytocin is a protein that aids in milk letdown during breastfeeding and in stimulating contractions during labor. Sometimes called “the love hormone,” it is known to promote tender behavior in both men and women. Mothers (and dads!) have higher levels of oxytocin, which suppresses cortisol, a hormone released in stressful situations. So, yes, life can be stressful with kids, but moms have built-in coping mechanisms.
A Higher Risk of Obesity
Another unfortunate health risk of being a mom is the potential for weight gain. A 2005 study published in Preventive Medicine concluded that for each child a woman had, her risk of obesity increased 7 percent. Finding the time for exercise and eating right can be difficult for moms, but it’s worth it to try. A recent report in Pediatrics showed that the activity levels of preschoolers were directly related to the physical activity levels of their mothers. Children really do adopt your good habits.
Motherhood can do strange things to your body. It’s very common for new moms to complain that they need to get new shoes. It’s not just an urge to shop. Pregnancy really does change women's feet. A 2013 study showed that pregnant women lost foot-arch height and rigidity, resulting in increased foot length. So, yes, new moms really do deserve a bit of shoe shopping!
For some women with chronic autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, there is some evidence that pregnancy can actually reduce the symptoms of those conditions. This may be due to “fetal-maternal microchimerism.”
Microchimerism is a condition in which a mother retains some of the DNA of the children she bore. Yep, this means that many moms have some cells from their kids embedded throughout their bodies. The presence of these fetal cells in the mother may also protect against some cancers, including breast cancer.
However, in the case of other autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and ankylosing spondylitis, symptoms may actually worsen because of the presence of this “foreign” DNA. In some women, an autoimmune disease like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Graves disease can actually be triggered immediately after birth, possibly because the mother’s body is attacking fetal cells lodged in her thyroid.
Nothing is tighter than the bond between mother and child. So much so that a mother retains some of her child within her for her entire life! This bond comes with health benefits and risks, but ask any mother, and she’ll tell you it's worth it.