If you are or have been pregnant, chances are good that you’ve experienced a myriad of changes in your body. The hormones of pregnancy are hard at work from conception to and through birth, and each one serves their own important and unique purpose. One of the more visible and sometimes bothersome changes is darkening of the skin in various locations on the body: most commonly, the abdomen, areola & nipples, and face. These changes often disappear after birth as the mother’s hormones once again shift. During pregnancy, they may understandably lead to feelings of self-consciousness or embarrassment, so perhaps it will bring some comfort to know that these changes do serve a purpose. To your baby, they act as a kind of road map, helping them make their way up the abdomen to the breast and directing their gaze toward their mother’s face.
Your pituitary gland, a tiny pea-sized gland at the base of your brain (imagine it somewhere behind your nose and in between your ears), makes, stores, and secretes nine hormones, all of which play transformational roles in pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. The most well-known include Oxytocin, Prolactin, FSH (Follicle-stimulating hormone), and Luteinizing hormone. But another hormone, Melanocyte-stimulating hormone or MSH, is responsible for the skin darkening many women experience during pregnancy. These changes often manifest as:
the linea nigra (Latin for “black line”) or pregnancy line extending from the pubic bone to the navel or even to the breastbone,
darkened areolae and nipples of the breast,
tan or brown patches of skin called melasma or the “pregnancy mask.”
Not all women experience these changes, and those that do have varying degrees of darkening. Some mothers may find them unsightly and seek remedies to decrease their noticeability while others may be unbothered by their presence. In either case, there is evidence that these skin changes may help newborns transition from birth to the breast.
Ar birth, a baby’s vision is approximately 20/200. This means that what they see is extremely blurry, even close up, and fine details are distorted. What they can see is contrast - specifically the contrast of white or lighter colors against darker colors. This is one reason that newborn toys are often black and white with a few additional contrasting colors like red and blue. Similarly, the contrast of the linea nigra against the lighter skin of the mother’s abdomen acts as a sort of compass or road map, leading babies to the equally dark areola and nipple during the breast crawl. Even in women of color, the contrast is significant enough for baby to see clearly. But what about that pregnancy mask? Similar to the scenario described above, darkened facial skin may help newborns locate their mother’s face and eyes, facilitating bonding after birth.
So, if you are pregnant and have noticed some of these changes in your own skin, try to find comfort in their beautiful purpose. Your body is preparing to guide your baby to you, creating an intricate backdrop for that first sacred meeting of mother and child.