Did I just leave my car keys in the refrigerator?

Pregnant women and new mothers are often teased for being confused and forgetful. Is the ‘mommy brain’ for real? Read on to find out.

By Aruna Raghuram  • 15 min read

Did I just leave my car keys in the refrigerator?
Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.
Elizabeth Stone, American author

Reduced comprehension
“Apart from forgetfulness (I have even left the gas stove on) I noticed reduced comprehension in my first pregnancy. I am a businesswoman but would look uncomprehendingly at a bank passbook! It was as if my brain’s processor was replaced by an older, slower version. I was a dumb version of myself. My emotional comprehension was also affected – I am usually adept at reading between the lines of what people say. In my second pregnancy, it was mostly mood swings. I have noticed that my creativity has been affected. I am an artist but I have not felt like picking up my colours for a long time."
Jigyasa Gowda, mother of a six-month-old and a toddler. She lives in Bengaluru

“I did not get forgetful during pregnancy, but yes, confusion was there. Before I became pregnant, I would get up early and get ready an hour in advance so I could spend some time reading or doing something else I enjoyed. During pregnancy, it all changed. For a large part, my priority was dealing with morning sickness and disturbed sleep. This disruption of the routine and change in priorities led to some confusion.”
Dr Divya Chandran, Bengaluru-based retina specialist and new mom

Sleep deprivation
“I did experience the ‘mommy brain’ after my child was born. My son was a very light sleeper and would not sleep more than two hours at a stretch. As I slept beside my child, I was perpetually sleep-deprived for the first six months. That led to a lot of exhaustion and confusion. Also, when you have many things on your mind, you tend to get slow and forgetful. On the emotional front, I felt a fierce protectiveness towards my baby, coupled with anxiety, as it was all so new.”
Dr Sonali Rawal, full-time working mother of a pre-schooler. She lives in Delhi

"During pregnancy there were the expected hormonal changes that made me moody and cranky. But after I had my child, particularly in the first few months postpartum, I did notice that while talking I would forget what I was saying. One reason was that with two little ones around it is difficult to have an uninterrupted conversation. I would find it difficult to recollect what had happened earlier in the day. It happens even now, though not so frequently. Also, as there are so many tasks to be completed, the less important ones tend to get forgotten. Perhaps, it’s the brain’s way of prioritising."
Akshaya Abilash, Pune-based mom to a toddler and a pre-schooler

Too much on the mind
"Sometimes, I open a cupboard and blank out – I have forgotten what I am looking for. I pick up my phone and can’t remember who I was going to call. Or, I look at my laptop and can’t figure out who I wanted to send an email to. These memory lapses have worsened after the birth of my child. One reason I think is my personality – I tend to do a lot of mental multitasking. It is not life-altering and does not interfere with normal life much though."
Vidyashree Rai, Mumbai-based dance therapist and mother of a five-year-old

These are some experiential glimpses at what ‘mommy brain’ can be like. Yes, mommy brain is real, it’s not an old wives’ tale. Such examples of absentmindedness, difficulty in concentrating and mental fogginess are reported by several pregnant women and new mothers the world over.
The causes may not be so clear though. Research has indicated that it could be a combination of hormonal surges and changes in brain structure that cause this condition. The lifestyle causes for mommy brain, such as changes in routine and priorities, fatigue, sleep deprivation, multiple things on the mind, and having little ones around distracting you, are much clearer. But what does science have to say about the mommy brain?

What science says

While hormonal and brain changes no doubt occur during pregnancy and early motherhood, expert opinion was divided for many years on whether there is an actual decline in cognitive performance in women during this phase of their lives.
However, recent research has supported the view that there is a scientific basis for the mommy brain. A review titled ‘Cognitive impairment during pregnancy: a meta-analysis’ (2018) led by Davies, evaluated 20 studies. The meta-analysis revealed that compared with non-pregnant women, moms-to-be performed worse on tests of memory, attention, and tasks such as planning and decision-making, particularly in the third trimester.

Hormonal changes
After the discomfort of morning sickness and the agony of labour comes the joy of seeing your new-born for the first time. The powerful emotions of love and protectiveness that surge through a new mother are difficult to describe. The love and caring a new mother showers on her baby is largely credited to the hormone oxytocin, which is produced in a woman’s body to aid childbirth and lactation. However, oxytocin has also been found to have an adverse impact on memory.
The study ‘Giving birth to a new brain: Hormone exposures of pregnancy influence human memory’ by Glynn (2010) at the University of California, says the culprits are prenatal glucocorticoids (steroid hormones) and the hormone oestrogen. The study found that verbal recall memory (but not recognition or working memory) diminishes during pregnancy and this persists after delivery. The alterations in maternal physiology during pregnancy caused by hormonal changes are necessary for maintaining gestation, foetal development and childbirth, observes the study. These changes may also prepare the maternal brain for the unique demands of motherhood. That’s why mommy brain is a good thing.

Changes in brain structure
While the pregnancy-induced hormone surges are well-known, the effects of pregnancy on the human brain are less well understood. The study ‘Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure’ (2016) by a group of researchers across multiple centres in Spain and The Netherlands led by Elseline Hoekzema found that pregnancy leads to reduction in grey matter volume in certain regions of the brain which lasts for at least two years after pregnancy. Interestingly, the grey matter volume changes predicted measures of postpartum maternal attachment, suggestive of an adaptive process serving the transition into motherhood, says the study.
While speaking about her landmark study, Dr Hoekzema says that the loss of grey matter may indicate a beneficial process of specialisation. Pregnancy, she explains, may help a woman’s brain specialise in the ability to recognise the needs of her infant and promote bonding. That’s why mommy brain is a good thing.

Bundle of responsibilities
The bundle of joy is also a bundle of responsibilities. In an article ‘The Science of Mom Brain’ that appeared on Psychology Today, Dr Vanessa LoBue, author of 9 Months In, 9 Months Out: A Scientist’s Tale of Pregnancy and Parenthood, says: “A big part of ‘mom brain’ probably just comes with being overwhelmed by new and challenging responsibilities that invade the same space where our old responsibilities still reside. We may never return to our pre-mom brains, but our new brains – forgetfulness, emotionality and all – might end up helping us become good, responsive parents.” That’s why mommy brain is a good thing.

Changes in lifestyle
Becoming a parent changes a person in ways that brain scans cannot capture. Apart from sleep, there are changes in diet, exercise schedule, and social life. For instance, much of the confusion and forgetfulness in new mothers can be attributed to sleep deprivation and fatigue. Exercise may be put on the backburner during the first few months after childbirth. Similarly, socialisation could also become difficult with a demanding new-born. Both these factors may impact the mood and mental clarity of a new mom. That’s why mommy brain is a challenge.

Preoccupation with the baby
Decades before the dawn of the age of MRIs, paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about the state of ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ which women are in following childbirth. He said that in the postpartum state, the mother of an infant becomes biologically and psychologically conditioned for special orientation to the needs of her child. In other words, new mothers focus their attention and emotions on the baby. As a result, they do not give the same attention to other things. That’s why mommy brain is a challenge.

Personality of the woman
Every woman responds to pregnancy and being a new mother in different ways. This variation is brought out by an Australian research study titled ‘A longitudinal study of cognitive performance during pregnancy and new motherhood’ (2000). It found that the personality factor of conscientiousness and level of reported anxiety were significant predictors of reported absentmindedness and forgetfulness while running errands. It concluded that the reported increase in forgetfulness in some pregnant women is possibly related to a complex interaction of personality and particular life situations. That’s why mommy brain is a challenge.

Did I just leave my car keys in the refrigerator?

How to manage mommy brain

Having said that, if you want to reduce the ‘brain fog’ and be more alert, here are a few pointers:

Connect with others: There might be less time to do this, but do not neglect keeping in touch with near ones (make time for your partner) and socialising. This leads to improved mental health, including better memory and focus. Schedule dates with your partner (without the baby). The break will do you good. Also, discuss with your partner the challenges you are facing. Reach out to other moms – you will realise you are not alone.

Keep physically active: Exercise will improve blood- and oxygen flow to your brain which will help it perform better. A bonus – exercise boosts endorphins - chemicals in the brain which promote a happy frame of mind.

Be systematic: Get organised to save energy and time you may spend hunting for essentials. Another way to aid your memory is to set timers for anything you want to remember – whether turning off the stove or calling the paediatrician. Also, make lists – shopping lists and to-do lists are a great help. Break down tasks so that you do not feel intimidated.

Simplify your routine: While developing a structure, make sure to keep your routine flexible. Do only what is essential. Resist the urge to be a perfectionist.

Ensure sufficient sleep: This may be a difficult one with a new-born in the house, but it is vital that new mothers get sufficient rest. ‘Try to sleep whenever the baby is asleep’, the usual advice given, is sensible.

Exercise your brain: Stay mentally active with puzzles or brain teasers that will sharpen your mind. Try your hand at something new – take an art class or learn to play a musical instrument. Smartphone apps like Lumosity are reported to train the brain to think more clearly and improve memory and focus.

Focus on your diet: Eat nutritious food that will nourish the brain – include protein, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and nuts in your diet. Drink plenty of water.

Seek help: Reach out to partners, family, co-workers and friends for help and support.

Finally, don’t worry. Anxiety and stress can worsen memory problems. Be patient with yourself about any lapses. And, more than anything else, learn to laugh at yourself.

In a nutshell

  • The mommy brain is a real condition caused by physiological, lifestyle and personality factors
  • New mothers often report forgetfulness, confusion and reduced comprehension
  • Mommy brain is not a bad thing. In fact, it is necessary to face the challenges of motherhood and nurture the new-born

What you could do right away

  • Get into the habit of keeping your keys, wallet, mobile phone and other essentials in specific places
  • Pick up the phone and call a friend who is sailing in the same boat. Exchanging notes will bring you relief
  • Stop judging yourself harshly for your lapses and learn to laugh at your foibles

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 7 August 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a consultant with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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