Pregnancy brain is a term used to describe forgetfulness during pregnancy, not being able to focus, or brain fog. This can also extend to after birth, and you may have heard people blame mommy brain or momnesia. Anecdotally, pregnancy brain and mom brain are very common. The standard answer to why this happens is that you are short on sleep, you have a lot going on, and you are dealing with additional stress. This is all true, but it may not fully explain why we get pregnancy brain from a scientific standpoint. What if we viewed pregnancy brain as a trade-off with a long-term benefit instead of viewing it as a loss? This article examines the science behind pregnancy brain and explores some evidence that it may actually make you a better parent.
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What is Pregnancy Brain?
Pregnancy brain is a term used to describe forgetfulness during pregnancy, not being able to focus, or brain fog. This can also extend to after birth, and you may have heard people blame mommy brain or momnesia. Anecdotally, this is very common. This article explores whether there is scientific evidence to explain it.
Why Does it Happen?
The standard answer to why you get pregnancy brain is that you are short on sleep, you have a lot going on, you are dealing with additional stress. This is all true, but it may not fully explain why we get pregnancy brain from a scientific standpoint.
The Science on Pregnancy Brain
Your body goes through a lot of physical changes during pregnancy. These are all driven by hormones. It is well documented that hormones alter our brain structure and function. During pregnancy, your progesterone increases 10 to 15 fold. You have more estrogen during pregnancy than during your entire non-pregnant life. These high hormone levels contribute to your brain structure and function changes, both short and long-term.
Impaired Memory and Recall
A study done in 2007 found that pregnant women are significantly impaired on some, but not all, memory measures. This study specifically looked at memory measures that place relatively high demands on executive cognitive control that may be selectively disrupted.
Brain Scans and Structural Changes
One study took brain scans of women who were trying to conceive before and after pregnancy. To rule out changes due to becoming a parent, and not just pregnancy, they also took brain scans of fathers. They found that pregnancy changed the brain structure, and the volume of grey matter was reduced. Researchers scanned 11 of these participants two years later, and the reductions in the grey matter persisted, with one exception. They found a selective partial volume recovery in the hippocampal cluster. Your hippocampus plays a significant role in memory. The researchers note that they speculate the brain changes do contribute to memory deficits often associated with pregnancy. Still, they also note that more studies are needed to assess whether reducing gray matter contributes to memory deficits during pregnancy.
A Different Perspective
At this point, you may be worried about losing some of your brain function and memory, at least temporarily. This is not all bad news. What if we viewed this as a trade-off with a long-term benefit instead of viewing it as a loss? A meta-analysis of 22 studies, consisting of 2,041 participants, built on the 2007 study showing memory impairment and brought up some interesting hypotheses.
Much of the research in humans has focused on mental functions that decline during pregnancy. Animal research has been more focused on cognitive reorganization. This meta-analysis suggests that the narrow focus on memory decline may be eclipsing potential advantages and that the laboratory tests will not measure potentially evolutionary protective mechanisms.
Cognitive Effort vs. Recall
The meta-analysis suggested that it may be that the cognitive effort involved in the memory tasks is underlying the impairment. They indicate that pregnant women may remember the task and then, being distracted by commitments outside the laboratory setting, assign the task such low priority compared to other pregnancy-related tasks. By prioritizing things like preparing a baby room, finishing work or home projects, attending doctors’ appointments, etc., low priority tasks are not completed. We make time and effort for the tasks that we deem important. I am sure you have many things on your brain about your pregnancy and baby that can make it difficult to focus on anything else.
The Theory of Mind Network
In the brain scan study, the grey matter volume reductions were not random. They occurred in association areas of the cerebral cortex that play a crucial role in social processes. These areas are very similar to the same regions involved in the theory of mind network. Theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people don’t have the same thoughts and feelings that you do. This is something that develops in children, usually by age four, and is essential for social interactions. You can actually test your child to find out if they have developed this. For example, if you are in the kitchen with a child, take a carton of milk out of the fridge and put it in a cupboard. They see you do this, so they know where the milk is. Ask them, if someone else comes in the kitchen to get a glass of milk, where will they look for the milk? A child who has not developed theory of mind will respond that the other person will look in the cupboard. They don’t understand that other people have different thoughts. A child who has developed theory of mind will answer that the person will look in the fridge because they don’t know that the milk is in the cupboard.
Brain Changes as an Adaptive Purpose for Motherhood
This is interesting because theory of mind plays a significant role in social interactions. As you prepare to become a mother, you will need to adapt to learn a new social interaction between you and your baby. In the brain scan study, they showed participants pictures of their babies and unfamiliar babies. Several brain regions showing the strongest neural activity in response to seeing pictures of their baby were the same brain regions that lost grey matter volume. The researchers state that pregnancy is associated with substantial long-lasting alterations in brain structure, which may serve an adaptive purpose for pending motherhood.
Reframing Pregnancy Brain
The big takeaway here is that the adverse effects you experience from pregnancy are not random. All of the physical, hormonal, and emotional changes you are going through have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Humans need not just grow and birth a baby. You need to be able to care for an infant and raise a child. That takes a shift in your thinking as you step into the role of becoming a parent. Pregnancy brain is a real thing, but it plays a role in the bigger picture.
Tips for Dealing with Pregnancy Brain
If you are experiencing some form of pregnancy brain or mom brain, there are some tips for dealing with this. The first tip is to cut yourself some slack. During pregnancy, you are growing a human being. When you become a parent, you are navigating new territory in raising a baby. It is not easy to do either. Instead of focusing on the downsides, give yourself some credit for everything your body and mind are doing.
Sleep & Diet
Sleep and diet impact our brain function. This is another reason that you should be making these two items a priority during your pregnancy. You have likely experienced how sharp your brain is after a good night of sleep and when you are eating healthy whole foods. Your body requires more sleep and more nutrients during pregnancy. The more you fine-tune these components, the more clear-headed and mentally sharp you will be.
Write it Down
Writing things down and putting appointments and other items on a calendar will help you keep track of things. Have a place where you can add random notes about tasks that pop up in your head. This could be in a note on your phone or a notebook. For example, if a friend recommends a pregnancy book for you to read, write it down. Save yourself from having to recall information later and make a note you can refer to later.
If you feel like you have many to-do items floating around in your head, I encourage you to do a brain dump. A brain dump is writing down or typing all of the random tasks and thoughts in your head. This could include everything from making an invite list for your baby shower to take out the trash to calling your friend back. You are putting a lot of information in your brain as you learn more about pregnancy and birth. Take some of the strain off your brain by getting all of those to-do items out of your brain and into a list. From there, you can prioritize or organize your list into actionable items.
Delegate and Ask for Help
With everything you have going on, if there is a task you can delegate to someone else, please do it. Your partner is an excellent resource to tackle some tasks and get some items off your to-do list and out of your mind. You can also enlist the help of friends or family. If you want to be involved in planning your baby’s nursery, you can head up that project, but there may be aspects of that project you can have others help with. Please make it a habit to ask for help from your partner, friends, and family. This is a valuable skill to have as a new parent when you really need help.
Building habits is an excellent way to take some stress off your brain. When something becomes a habit, we often do it routinely without even thinking about it. One great way to start a new habit is to use a trigger. If you already get up in the morning and go to your kitchen to make a cup of tea, put your prenatal vitamins right next to your tea to remind you to take them. You can also set daily alarms to remind you to take your vitamin. The more habitual you make it to do things like take your prenatal vitamin, the easier it is to remember.
If you have cognitively demanding work, try to prioritize it at the optimal time for you. If you are not a morning person, don’t plan to do brain-heavy tasks first thing in the morning. Shoot for a time during the day when you are more alert and better able to focus.
If something is important, you will make it a priority. Ask yourself if everything you’re making a priority is essential. If something is lingering around that you keep postponing, can you scrap it? If you are stressing out and putting off making baby announcements, can you skip sending them? It is easy to get wrapped up in etiquette and traditions. You need to do what works for you, even if that means bucking rules to suit your lifestyle better.
It is also easy to spend a lot of time going down rabbit holes and researching things that may not be necessary. If you are in your first trimester, don’t worry about spending time researching diapers, you have months to explore those options. Your brain has a limited capacity. Prioritize the things that are truly important to you and relevant to where you are in your pregnancy timeline.
If you are experiencing pregnancy brain or mom brain, you are not alone. These tips may seem small, and stacking them together can make a big difference. All of the changes you are going through have a bigger purpose in the long term. Keep in mind that while pregnancy brain may be frustrating, your brain is adapting to help you be a better parent.
Thank you to the amazing companies that have supported this episode.
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