Debunking pregnancy brain

By Published On: August 31st, 2010

At seven months pregnant with my first baby, I have […]

At seven months pregnant with my first baby, I have had my share of pregnancy brain moments. Let’s see—there was that really cold day in February when I tried to open my car door, pulling on the handle with all my might and nearly giving up, thinking that it was frozen shut. Then I realized it was just locked. For my entire first trimester, I called my assistant Megan when her name was Melissa. (She started responding to Megan so as not to make me feel bad.) And there have been countless times when I just stopped talking mid-sentence, looked at the person I was conversing with and asked, “What was I saying?”
I forget words, I forget items on my list at the grocery store, I forget to hit save when I’m writing an article. And my coworkers, friends, husband and I just laugh it all off. “Pregnancy brain!” they shout. It’s the clutch excuse that absolves me of all responsibility for inane actions. And when it’s not completely annoying (like when I have to spend 20 minutes searching for my car keys), it’s actually a nice pregnancy perk: Don’t blame me—blame the bump!
Imagine my surprise when I read an Australian study that came out earlier this year calling pregnancy brain a myth. “When focused on a task, women who are pregnant or new mothers do not have ‘cognitive deficits,’ and perform as well as their non-pregnant contemporaries,” says Helen Christensen, MD, the study’s lead author and researcher at The Australian National University in Canberra.
Her research actually contradicts previous studies supporting the idea of pregnancy brain. Those studies had various problems, she says, including a lack of memory testing before the pregnancy occurs in order to get a baseline, a sample size that is too small, and lack of a follow-up period. Christensen tested the cognitive abilities of more than 1,200 women at three 4-year intervals between 1999 and 2007. Over the 8-year period, 264 became mothers—and there were no significant memory differences in those who were pregnant and those who weren’t.
Which leads me to the (very forgetful) elephant in the room: What exactly is my problem? I contacted Christensen looking for answers.
“You could just be ‘blaming the bump,’ for normal memory lapses,” she responded. “Or a lack of sleep or general excitement may influence your views about memory lapse.” But the bottom line, she reiterated, is that I’m most likely not any more forgetful than I used to be. I just may notice it more now.
Ros Crawley, MD, a researcher at the University of Sunderland in England, came to similar conclusions in a study she conducted in 2008. “It may be that pregnant women have internalized a societal stereotype that suggests they will become more forgetful and absentminded,” she says. Therefore, they feel like they are.
I think back to prepregnancy times in my life when I’ve been forgetful. I certainly have lost articles before by not hitting save. And to be honest, I’ve never really been good at remembering where I put my keys. Maybe I am just noticing these events more now that I have a good excuse to attribute them to. In any case, it’s good to know that I’m not suffering from early dementia, and that even though I sometimes feel like it, my cognitive abilities are not in a slow decline due to motherhood. But I still think I’ll keep this little tidbit of knowledge from my friends and family—lest they stop thinking my forgetfulness is a charming part of pregnancy, and start thinking that I’m … wait … what was I saying?