The truth about pregnancy brain

By Published On: December 6th, 2012

Mental hiccups commonly known as “pregnancy brain” have become an […]

Mental hiccups commonly known as “pregnancy brain” have become an accepted side effect of human gestation, much like swollen feet or heartburn are expected to be par for the course. Ask any current or formerly pregnant woman if she’s had moments of mom- to-be forgetfulness, and she’s sure to offer up a story or two—if she can remember them, that is.

Jennifer Davis, mom of two in Robbinsville, New Jersey, recalls the brain battle she waged with her car keys: “I would lose and then find my keys everywhere—the fridge, the shower … they went through the washing machine numerous times,” says Davis. “But probably the worst was putting them in the dishwasher.” Amy Milburn, mom of two in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, pulled out of her garage while pregnant with her oldest son Carter, but forgot to close one of her car doors and smashed it into the wall when she shifted into reverse. Milburn was fine, but the car, not so much. She had to tie the door closed and head to the body shop.

These memory gaffes were certainly unfeigned (and in the case of Milburn, expensive), but what does science have to say about them? The most recent and comprehensive studies on the topic out of Australia and the United Kingdom have found that brain capacity and function is not notably reduced during pregnancy, and that a woman is therefore no more likely to be forgetful during pregnancy than at other times in her life. In other words, taking the phrase literally, pregnancy brain is a myth.

Beyond the stereotype
Expectant women of the world would likely protest the research, arguing pregnancy brain is as much a reality of their nine months as their baby bumps and crazy cravings. And they have a point, explains Diane Glazer, PhD, a psychotherapist in Malibu, California, who counsels moms and moms-to-be. “We expect our brains to work perfectly, even during a time like pregnancy when our mind might be going in a million directions,” she says.

There are several factors that can contribute to brain drain, including anxiety, depression, stress, lack of sleep, and even the simple expectation that you will be more forgetful, which can make you hyper-aware of every wits glitch. The key is to tease out the reasons why you might be blanking more than usual to see if they warrant extra attention.

Glazer notes that while pregnancy can be a happy event, it’s also a stressor and time of change, which can bring hidden or new issues to the surface. Anxiety and depression, for example, may rear their otherwise hidden heads and bring about negative effects on brain function, possibly impacting memory and daily performance. While Glazer says some women who are at risk for depression or anxiety—either due to family history of these disorders or previous episodes —fare well during pregnancy (“The flood of hormones seems to help them,” she explains), others may find it a trying time.

Even if a mom-to-be isn’t at risk, surging hormones can cause side effects that leave a woman far from her best self—and unprecedented absentmindedness may result. “The body is flooded with hCG, prolactin, estrogen and progesterone [during pregnancy],” says Melanie Schwartz, MD, OB/GYN at WomanCare in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “The rapid increase in progesterone is responsible for a lot of the physical and emotional symptoms of the first trimester including fatigue, breast tenderness and even mood changes.”

Schwartz points to fatigue as a common complaint of pregnancy, which Glazer notes could also be another culprit behind pregnancy brain. “Every study shows that lack of sleep interferes with physical and mental performance,” says Glazer. “You don’t feel as good when you aren’t rested and your spatial relations suffer.”

When Milburn digs deeper into her one-car accident, she remembers she was three weeks away from giving birth and sleeping poorly due to painful sciatica. So what initially could have been pegged as pregnancy brain probably had a real and explainable cause: lack of sleep.

Fighting back
If, like Elizabeth Vickerman, mom of two in Rockport, Maine, the extent of your pregnancy brain involves returning from Redbox with two of the exact same movie, you can have a good chuckle at your silly self and carry on. To ease your mind, keep a small notebook in your purse to jot down those fleeting thoughts, like “buy milk,” or download a free organizing app like Awesome Note onto your phone.

But if you find you’re forgetting more than usual and are also experiencing other symptoms of anxiety or depression such as frequent crying jags, excessive worry or a persistent depressed mood, talk to your healthcare provider. And don’t stop there, advises Glazer: “Your OB is a good place to start, but if you feel like you aren’t getting good guidance, step it up to the next level and seek out a therapist, social worker, family counselor or psychiatrist.”

If you’ve checked possible anxiety or depression off of your list and are already doing your best to get swirling thoughts out of your mind and onto paper, make a concerted effort to consistently get a good night’s sleep, eat well and stay hydrated. Just don’t expect your memory to magically improve once baby makes his or her arrival—your bundle will come complete with a whole new array of things to distract you.

By Christy Rippel