New Mom Brain: Yes, It’s Real
What is mom brain?
Feeling a bit spacey? More forgetful than usual? If you sense that your brain has changed during pregnancy or after baby, you may be right. Mom brain is a real thing. And it’s not just lack of sleep. Whether you call it momnesia, mommy brain, pregnancy brain, or baby brain, science has confirmed it's real (1).
Mom brain is a well-known term for the common cognitive changes that occur anytime during pregnancy or after birth. According to the American Psychological Association, between 50 and 80% of pregnant women report cognitive issues during pregnancy and postpartum (2).
6 symptoms of mom brain:
Do you have mom brain? Here are some indications you might be feeling the effects of your brain’s adaptations.
1. Occasional insomnia
2. Inability to remember simple things
3. Frequently losing your train of thought
4. Inability to focus on logical tasks
5. General feeling of “brain fog” throughout the day
6. Constantly misplacing objects
What causes mom brain?
A woman’s brain restructures to help prepare her for motherhood. New research shows that pregnancy can trigger brain growth, prompting changes in areas of the brain responsible for shaping warm and efficient parental behavior.
Structural changes occur in the maternal brain during early postpartum. Researchers found increases in gray matter volume of the prefrontal cortex, parietal lobes, and midbrain areas. Increased gray matter volume in the midbrain including the hypothalamus, substantia nigra, and amygdala was associated with maternal positive perception of her baby (3).
According to Pilyoung Kim, PhD, a developmental psychologist and post-doctoral researcher who researched the subject while at Yale University, there were observable “increases in gray matter in many areas of the brain ... which play an important role for maternal motivation and reward processing (3).”
Kim speculates what could be happening. "The first few months [of motherhood] are especially stressful and intense. But at the same time the mothers' brains go through changes so the mothers can focus their energy on their own infant, finding more positive meaning from their infant, so they can develop emotional bondings with their infants (4)." And though it may be frustrating to not be able to remember things, research also suggests that it improves over time.
What happens to your brain during pregnancy?
Hormonal changes drive significant physiological and physical changes during pregnancy. In order for your body to grow and nurture a baby, blood volume, hormone levels, absorption of nutrients, and other physiological capabilities grow dramatically.
There are 15 to 40 times more progesterone and estrogen in the brain during pregnancy. Progesterone is known to have a sedating effect, possibly affecting cognition. Researchers consider this hormonal influx as likely triggers of the brain’s architectural changes (2).
Mom brain is actually a good thing
It’s important to remember that these changes are not deficiencies. "We certainly don't want to put a message out there [that] 'pregnancy makes you lose your brain,'" says the study's lead author Elseline Hoekzema, a neuroscientist at Leiden University the Netherlands who is also the pregnant mother of a 2-year-old. "Gray matter volume loss can represent a beneficial process of maturation or specialization (5)."
Abbe Macbeth, a neuroscientist with Noldus Information Technology, argues that less can be more. Her research indicates that the brain restructures itself to respond to life changes. "There is all this anecdotal talk about pregnant women forgetting things, but that can occur in areas that don't necessarily have anything to do with caring for our offspring," she says. "That's what nature wants us to focus on (5).”
How long does mommy brain last?
While the work of Pilyoung Kim, PhD at Yale showed gray matter increases in certain parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, other breakthrough studies show gray matter decreases in other parts of the brain.
A first-of-its-kind study has revealed that the architecture of women's brains changes strikingly during their first pregnancies in ways that last for at least two years. Gray matter shrinks in areas involved in processing and responding to social signals. Experts believe this helps moms be more efficient, with the brains of new mothers essentially wired to respond to baby and detect threats. This new study showed the first evidence that pregnancy confers long-lasting changes in a woman's brain (6). Research is still investigating just how these changes act over time.
Many women report mom-brain symptoms diminishing over the course of the first year. Lack of sleep can contribute to trouble focusing, but things do tend to ease up as you and baby get into a reliable rhythm.
Tips & solutions for mom brain:
While there are some things you can’t change—like hormones—there are many things you can control.
It’s important to stay hydrated. Water provides energy to brain cells more effectively than any other substance.
2. Sleep when you can
Supporting a healthy sleep pattern should be a priority as soon as you are able.
3. Limit multitasking
For your brain’s sake, multitasking should be used only when absolutely needed.
4. Eat well
Eating a diet rich in healthy fats, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other key nutrients is crucial for your brain health.
5. Supplement gaps in diet
DHA, probiotics, vitamin D, iron, antioxidants, and methylfolate are so important for brain nutrition—supporting mood, energy, sleep, focus, and memory.
6. Breathe deeply
Brain cells are very sensitive to decreases in oxygen levels and don’t survive or function well very long without it.
Quick tip: Set a timer to remind yourself to do a breathing exercise; even a few minutes can energize your brain.
Even though it can be challenging, it’s important to keep connected. Maintaining healthy friendships improves mental health, including memory and focus.
Quick tip: Even a quick chat with a neighbor while shopping or another parent at the park can help keep your social connections going.
8. Take notes
Keep a notebook nearby, and if there’s something you don’t want to forget, write it down. And even if you weren’t a to-do list person before, now is a good time to start. Trying to remember everything can be stressful, so take the pressure off.
Quick tip: Use your phone or a voice memo function to easily capture your notes.
Exercise helps with just about everything and mom brain is no exception. Studies show that exercise can help improve certain executive functioning skills, like planning and problem solving (7) and help manage the negative effects of stress (8).
Quick tip: If you’re having trouble finding time, try incorporating baby into your workouts with a stroller or infant carrier.
Quick tip: Delegate where you can and prioritize the things that are most important. Go easy on yourself and try to set realistic expectations of what can be accomplished.
Making time to relax and recharge can seem impossible when there is so much going on, but it’s actually necessary. You can’t function at your best when you’re stressed and overwhelmed. When you give yourself permission to recharge, you’ll be more focused and alert and even have more energy to get through your to-do list. Studies show that simple things such as mindfulness can help you relax, decrease stress, and improve mood and cognitive functioning (9).
Quick tip: Put on your favorite tunes. Listening to music can change the anatomy of the brain’s structure, release endorphins, and relax the limbic system, an area of the brain involved in emotions and memory (10).