We’re all familiar with the idea that both pregnancy and postpartum life come with a litany of um ... unique issues. From having to pee a lot (really, a lot) to pesky mood swings and engorged breasts, there really is no shortage of interesting new experiences you’ll have to roll with.
“Mom Brain,” (though it could also be called “birthing parent brain” depending on how you identify), is a term that’s been floating around for a while now and is known to affect both pregnant people and those that have already given birth. Used to describe the feelings of forgetfulness, fogginess and difficulty concentrating that seem to come with both growing and delivering a baby, the term (and condition) is still not extensively researched — but there is some information out there that might be helpful for new parents who are wondering if they’ve lost their minds.
What exactly is “mom brain” — and do I have it?
Everyone experiences those moments of forgetfulness — losing your keys for the umpteenth time or blanking on the name of that co-worker you just spent 15 minutes chatting with — so what makes this any different?
“Mom brain” is unique because it specifically refers to the foggy, forgetful feelings that can happen to those currently pregnant or in the postpartum period. For many people, this manifests itself with issues recalling words (“You know, it’s the thing that has a handle and holds liquid?”), problems concentrating on tasks, or general feelings of spaciness.
These symptoms come as no surprise to Dr. Amritha Bhat. “You would expect that there will be changes in thinking, focus and concentration given all the hormonal changes, and the sleep deprivation and the increased stress that comes with pregnancy and parenting,” she says.
In her various roles as a perinatal psychiatrist, program director for UW Medicine Maternal-Child Mental Health Program and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine, Bhat encounters plenty of people who struggle with similar experiences.
What can we learn from the current research?
When it comes to “mom brain” the current research is somewhat conflicting, with some studies showing improvement in cognition, and other studies showing changes or reduction in cognition. Existing studies generally fall into three different categories — survey-based studies, cognitive testing and imaging studies.
The survey-based studies are pretty much questionnaires that are sent to pregnant and postpartum individuals, asking them about any changes in their thinking, along with any difficulties they’re experiencing with concentration, focus or memory. Most of these survey studies have shown that, to no one’s surprise, pregnant and birthing parents very frequently report cognitive difficulties during this period.
Then there are other studies where participants are brought into the lab and given cognitive tests, which are more objective measures of recall and working memory. However, one critique of this method is that they’re measuring some things, but not necessarily everything that is important.
And that’s where the third kind of study comes in — imaging studies. These are the ones that look at brain volume. There has also been some confusion with these because, like with the survey-based research, some studies have found that gray matter decreased in the brain, while others found that it increased — making them both equivocal.
Though the thought of your brain volume decreasing might sound alarming, it’s not always a bad thing.
“There’s this phenomenon called ‘pruning,’” Bhat explains. “It happens during adolescence as well. It’s essentially making the brain more efficient by helping support quick communication between different parts of the brain. So decreased gray matter volume is not necessarily a bad thing — you can think of it as specialization.”
Remember to be kind to yourself
Even with these studies (which, to be fair, have mostly been small), we still don’t have any solid answers about how “mom brain” exactly works.
Bhat does think it’s important to keep looking into these experiences and continue doing the research.
“Like many other things in pregnancy, when pregnant or postpartum women are thinking about this ‘mom brain’ they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place because if they say, yes, I have ‘mom brain,’ then they’re admitting that they are not functioning as well as they could,” she says. “But then, if they say no ‘mom brain’ isn’t a real thing then they’re kind of devaluing what’s happening in their life — lots of hormonal, stress, sleep, emotional, cognitive changes.”
Does “mom brain” eventually go away?
It’s thought that a combination of sleep deprivation, stress and hormonal changes are what bring “mom brain” about, and maybe even those actual brain changes mentioned above (though only time and continued research will tell). Overall, Bhat isn’t too concerned about long-term repercussions, saying, “I would say that clinically I am able to reassure my patients that it’s not something that is a major concern or that will stick around for too long.”
She is also quick to emphasize the importance of being kind to yourself during pregnancy and postpartum, noting that it’s essential to take time for yourself and reach out to your health team if you have any concerns or feel like you’re experiencing signs of anxiety or depression.
And it really isn’t all bad! The upside of “mom brain” is that it seems to be preparing you for your role by streamlining your brain and helping you to interpret your baby’s cries. In fact, the imaging study which saw a decrease in gray brain matter found that the women with the most reduction also had the strongest bond with their babies (self-reported, but still).
So even though you might not be as proficient at certain things (you know, like remembering basic words), that might be in service of something that’s more important — your new role as a parent.
Bhat also wants to emphasize, “For someone that is reading this, that is experiencing ‘mom brain,’ I think it's important to reframe and not think about it as a decline in your mental functions, but rather a reorganization of your mental functions.”
She also suggests some useful tips to help you feel more organized, including writing things down (who doesn’t love a good list), using technology for reminders and very consciously managing stress. Because, as she explains, even if you don’t feel anxious, it is a stressful situation that you’re in and a big change. Acknowledging that is key, as is making time for yourself, getting plenty of sleep and doing things that will help relieve your stress.