Baby Brain: What’s Really Happening?
So you forgot to attend your doctor’s appointment. You can’t remember whether you’ve replied to that urgent email your boss sent. You may feel like your brain is covered in a cloud of fog.
There’s no need to worry just yet. From temporary memory issues to grogginess, some women report a short-lived decrease in cognitive function during pregnancy.1
Referred to colloquially as “baby brain,” or “momnesia,” the phenomenon has been the topic of extensive research.1 So what do experts have to say on the subject?
What is baby brain?
Baby brain involves the memory struggles, concentration challenges, and general absent-mindedness many women report to experience during pregnancy.2 Some say these symptoms persist into the early stages of motherhood.2
Other experts assert that while some women feel a bit more disoriented when pregnant, pregnancy itself does not change the landscape of a woman’s brain.3 It is, however, fairly standard to be more forgetful when you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or tired—all of which are tied to pregnancy and early motherhood in one way or another.3
To this end, experts often attribute baby brain to the following:3
- Frequent multitasking
- Hormonal changes
- Evolutionary reasons
While overall brain capacity isn’t affected during pregnancy, hormonal shifts may alter the brain circuits and other aspects of one’s cognitive health.1-3 Progesterone and estrogen production typically increases by a factor of 15 to 40 during pregnancy, which can affect the neurons in the brain (and therefore, cognitive performance).3
Though concerning for the person experiencing them, the above-mentioned changes are mostly reasonable from a physiological standpoint. Plus, so many pregnant women and new moms focus their attention on all the changes having a newborn will bring; it makes sense, in this way, that their short-term memory and attention span may be affected temporarily.
What is the verdict on baby brain?
One older study reports that between 50 and 80 percent of women claim to have experienced baby brain.4 Specifically, many pregnant women claim to feel less coherent or attentive at work and more forgetful in general.3
Other researchers claim baby brain is just a myth and that any symptoms of alleged momnesia are simply the result of lack of sleep.3
Yet some believe pregnancy causes shifts in the brain for up to two years and that there are noticeable changes in the brain’s gray matter.3
Put simply, there’s a lot of information out in the world on the link between pregnancy and cognitive performance.
So what’s the verdict? What is really going on?
To dive deeper into the causes, effects, and implications of baby brain, researchers from Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, reviewed 20 studies involving more than 700 pregnant women (along with over 500 nonpregnant women).5 Their meta-analysis reveals that pregnant women do tend to experience small, temporary issues with cognitive and executive functioning—and a higher number of memory issues—during pregnancy.5
“The differences primarily develop during the first trimester,” the researchers claim, “and are consistent with recent findings of long-term reductions in brain gray matter volume during pregnancy.”5
Most of the mentioned cognitive and memory symptoms were identified between the first and second trimesters but not between the second and third trimesters.5 Certain brain-related challenges, including memory struggles, were particularly notable during the third trimester.5
Ultimately, these changes are unlikely to go noticed by anyone outside the pregnant woman’s immediate circle.1-3,5 More significant problems, like job performance issues or an impaired ability to cope with complex tasks, occur much less frequently.1-3,5
The researchers also note that further investigation is required to determine how these cognitive changes will affect pregnant women’s daily lives.5
“These findings need to be interpreted with caution, particularly as the declines were statistically significant, but performance remained within the normal ranges of general cognitive functioning and memory,” explains one of the study’s coauthors.5
What can you do to support baby brain?
Pregnant women facing baby brain shouldn’t be afraid to tackle their symptoms.3 As soon as they realize they aren’t feeling quite as sharp as usual, momnesia sufferers ought to take stock of their situation, come to terms with the symptoms of baby brain, and take active measures to simplify their lives and improve their health.3
Here are some steps women can take to ward off baby brain:
- Get enough sleep. Women accrue up to 700 hours of sleep debt within 12 months of having a baby.3 To combat this, pregnant women and new mothers alike should make sleep a top priority—even if that means squeezing in a nap here and there.
After just a week of getting better sleep, women with baby brain will likely see their symptoms lessen.3
- Keep lists. Pregnant women who are feeling more forgetful than normal may want to start keeping lists. By doing so, they can stay organized without relying on memory alone.3 Writing things down also promotes better stress management.
It may sound like a simple practice, but the benefits of using a day planner, a list-making app, or a similar resource are undeniable.
- Eat well. Enough cannot be said about the importance of eating a healthy diet during pregnancy (or at any time). Consuming adequate levels of key nutrients like folate, choline, DHA, lutein and zeaxanthin, and L-carnitine will support both mother and child—including the expecting or new mother’s ongoing health.6-9
Those who are concerned about getting enough nutrients through their diet alone may want to discuss taking a prenatal vitamin with their healthcare practitioner.
In closing, the above steps are designed to help women who experience baby brain strengthen their memory and improve their overall cognitive function. Pregnant women and new mothers should first contact a healthcare practitioner for more information. (That said, they shouldn’t feel truly worried about momnesia unless their symptoms are causing safety risks.)
1. Sandoiu A. Is the ‘baby brain’ phenomenon real? Study investigates. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320607.php. Medical News Today. Accessed July 30, 2019.
2. Tobah YB. Does “baby brain” really exist?https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/baby-brain/faq-20057896. Mayo Clinic. Accessed July
30, 2019.3. Mann D. Pregnancy brain: Myth or reality? https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/memory_lapse_it_may_be_pregnancy_brain. WebMD. Accessed July 30, 2019.
4. DeAngelis T. Priming for a new role. Science Watch. 2008;39(8):28.
5. Davies SJ et al. Cognitive impairment during pregnancy: a meta-analysis. The Medical Journal of Australia. 2018;208(1). doi: 10.5694/mja17.00131.
6. Angelo G. Pregnancy in brief. Linus Pauling Institute. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/pregnancy-in-brief. Accessed July 26, 2019.
7. Balashova OA et al. Dev Neurobiol. 2018;78(4):391-402.
8. Braarud HC et al. Nutrients. 2018;10(5):529.
9. Zielińska MA et al. Nutrients. 2017;9(8):838.
Submitted by the Metagenics Team