Does having a baby make you smarter?

Some scientists think so. Craig Kinsley and Kelly Lambert’s studies with rats showed that the flush of hormones that comes with pregnancy, childbirth and lactation cause permanent changes in the learning and memory capacities of mother rats compared to “virgin rats.” They were able to find food in a maze more easily, catch live food more quickly, and they seemed to have enhanced sensory powers. They’re also braver. In other words, as Kinsley put it, the experiments showed “mom rats kicking virgin rats’ butts.”

These and other studies are detailed in the book The Mommy Brain by Katherine Ellison (Perseus Books, 2005). Overall, it shows that while mothers may think their brains turn to Jello when they spend all day with their babies, they’re actually learning skills that will help in all aspects of life.

The experts theorize that these gains in brain power develop to help mothers protect their young and keep the species going. They may not seem to be learning anything, but the need to be constantly responsible for another being and learn on the job how to care for them not only makes them smarter but makes them better able to multi-task, prioritize and get along with other people.

Do you buy that? The general stereotype of a stay-at-home mom is that she’s not as sharp as childless career women. A mother I talked with the other day just laughed when I mentioned this study and said, “Hah, where did you get that? My brain is mush.”

About now, you may be wondering a) if this is all B.S. and b) if it’s true, how can you catch up? Well, there’s no way to get all those pregnancy and breastfeeding hormones without having a baby, but changes have also been found in rats—and people—who spent a lot of time with infants or caregiving in general. The intimate contact leads to some of the same changes in both mothers and fathers.

So, maybe mothering my puppies makes me smarter. It certainly makes me quicker on my feet. Maybe caregiving elderly relatives is teaching me lessons I might have learned as a mother. Or maybe those years I spent caring for a live-in stepson did the job.

What do you think?