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‘OMG! I just left my car keys in the fridge!’: Surprising truths about mommy brain you need to know

Aruna Raghuram Aruna Raghuram 14 Mins Read

Aruna Raghuram Aruna Raghuram

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

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‘OMG! I just left my car keys in the fridge!’: Surprising truths about mommy brain you need to know

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’ve even left the gas stove on!), I noticed reduced comprehension in my first pregnancy. I’m 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’m usually adept at reading between the lines of what people say. In my second pregnancy, it was mostly mood swings. I’ve noticed that my creativity has been affected. I’m an artist but I’ve not felt like picking up my colors for a long time.

Jigyasa Gowda, mother of a 6-month-old and a toddler, Bengaluru

Confusion

“I didn’t 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—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, retina specialist and new mom, Bengaluru

Sleep deprivation

“I did experience the ‘mommy brain’ after my child was born. My son was a very light sleeper and wouldn’t 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 toward my baby, coupled with anxiety, as it was all so new.”

Dr Sonali Rawal, full-time working mother of a preschooler, New Delhi

Forgetfulness

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, I did notice that while talking I would forget what I was saying. One reason was that with two little ones around, it’s 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 prioritizing.

Akshaya Abilash, mom to a toddler and a preschooler, Pune

Too much on the mind

Sometimes, I open a cupboard and blank out—I’ve forgotten what I’m 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 could be my personality—I tend to do a lot of mental multitasking. It (forgetfulness) is not life-altering and doesn’t interfere with normal life much, though.

Vidyashree Rai, dance therapist and mother of a 5-year-old, Mumbai

These are some experiential glimpses into 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 are not so clear, though. Research has indicated that hormonal surges and changes in brain structure cause this condition. The lifestyle causes for mommy brain, such as changes in routine and priorities, fatigue, sleep deprivation, multiple thoughts running through the mother’s mind, and the mother being distracted by her young children, are much clearer. But what does science have to say about the mommy brain?

What science says

While hormonal and brain changes undoubtedly occur during pregnancy and early motherhood, expert opinion was divided for many years on whether there’s an actual decline in cognitive performance in women during this phase of their lives.

However, recent research has supported the view that there’s a scientific basis for the mommy brain. Sasha Davies and other researchers (2018) evaluated 20 studies and published their findings in The Medical Journal of Australia in a paper, titled ‘Cognitive impairment during pregnancy: A meta-analysis.’ 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 labor comes the joy of seeing your newborn for the first time. The powerful emotions of love and protectiveness that surge through a new mother are difficult to describe. The love a new mother showers on her baby and her motivation to care for her infant are 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 LM Glynn (2010) published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, says the culprits are prenatal glucocorticoids (steroid hormones) and the hormone estrogen. 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, fetal 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’ by a group of researchers across multiple centers in Spain and The Netherlands led by Elseline Hoekzema (2016), 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.

Hoekzema observed that the loss of grey matter may indicate a beneficial process of specialization. Pregnancy, she explained, may help a woman’s brain specialize in the ability to recognize the needs of her infant and promote bonding.

Bundle of responsibilities

The bundle of joy is also a bundle of responsibilities. In the Psychology Today article, “The Science of ‘Mom Brain,’” 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.”

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 back burner during the first few months after childbirth. Similarly, socialization could also become difficult with a demanding newborn. 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, pediatrician 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 don’t give the same attention to other things.

The 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 study (2000) titled, ‘A longitudinal study of cognitive performance during pregnancy and new motherhood.’ It found that the personality factor of conscientiousness and the level of reported anxiety were significant predictors of reported absentmindedness and forgetfulness while running errands. The article concluded that the reported increase in forgetfulness in some pregnant women could be related to a complex interaction of personality and particular life situations.

EXPERT TAKE

ParentCircle spoke to Dr Jamuna Rajeswaran, head of clinical neuropsychology at NIMHANS, and PhD scholar Pratibha Meena, on the subject of mommy brain. This is what they said.


Q. What are the changes that occur in a woman's brain during pregnancy and early motherhood?

A. The beginning of pregnancy initiates a series of changes in the body of a woman. These are led by hormones and prepare the mind and body of the mother for childbirth and further nurturing of the baby. The female body produces large amounts of progesterone and estrogen during pregnancy, which lead to neurochemical changes in the brain and evoke changes in the central physiological system. These changes help in maintaining electrolyte balance, appetite, stress responses and energy partitioning in the body for a pregnancy successfully coming to term. Researchers have found there is a grey matter reduction that initiates at the beginning of the pregnancy and occurs in different patterns through the trimesters. This happens in areas pertaining to social cognition and is hypothesized to be necessary to enable the mother to understand the child's implicit and explicit needs. These identified areas include the hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and several other areas of the brain.

Q. Do these changes lead to confusion and forgetfulness? Is the much-talked-about 'mommy brain' a reality? 

A. These structural changes are associated with confusion and impairment of memory in certain aspects, but not all. The 'mommy brain' is, in fact, real. There can also be hyper-vigilance leading to divided attention. However, there are no changes in reasoning, comprehension or working memory. This would mean that there can be lapses in remembering certain names or smaller details of day-to-day life, but no major impairment in learning and recognition.


Q. How long do the changes last? Are the changes reversible? 

A. Studies suggest that the reductions in the grey matter remained evident two years after childbirth, with a partial recovery in the left hippocampus. This in turn suggests that pregnancy can indeed cause long-term structural changes in the brain. The brain changes help the women through the pregnancy and are important for healthy attachment, bonding and caretaking of the newborn. Longitudinal studies are warranted to assess how long these changes last, and whether they reverse at all.

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 don’t neglect to keep in touch with near ones (make time for your partner) and socializing. 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’re facing. Reach out to other moms—you’ll realize you’re 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, the chemicals in the brain that promote a happy frame of mind.
  • Be systematic: Get organized 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—be it turning off the stove or calling the pediatrician. Also, make lists. Shopping lists and to-do lists are a great help. Break down tasks so that you don’t feel intimidated.
  • Simplify your routine: While developing a structure, 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 newborn in the house, but it’s vital that new mothers get sufficient rest. “Try to sleep whenever the baby is asleep,” the usual advice given to new moms, is sensible.
  • Exercise your brain: Stay mentally active with puzzles or brainteasers 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 lean 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

  1. The mommy brain is a real condition caused by physiological, lifestyle and personality factors.
  2. New mothers often report forgetfulness, confusion and reduced comprehension.
  3. Mommy brain is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s necessary to face the challenges of motherhood and nurture the newborn.

What you can do right away

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