Pregnancy Brain & Its Hidden Benefits
What it is and how you can help clear the fog.
From the moment you start baking that little bun in your oven, your body starts going through an epic transformation. In addition to your growing baby bump, your emotions may start swinging wildly on a pendulum, you may feel achy or drained, or experience morning sickness (that seems to last all day). Bothersome as these side effects may be, there may be something else that’s not so easy to explain at play—pregnancy brain (otherwise known as baby brain).
There’s been hot debate in the scientific community about whether or not pregnancy brain is real. But recent research has supported that baby brain is, indeed, a thing. And moms who’ve been there can vouch for its existence—between 50-80% of pregnant women confirm that baby brain is real.
If you’ve experienced pregnancy brain, are in the throes of it right now, or merely curious about the topic, read on. We’re diving into what pregnancy brain is, how it affects you physiologically, and how to help manage it. Plus, we’re sharing some research on possible benefits (surprise!) it may afford you in the moment and for years to come. But, no worries—baby brain, itself, isn’t permanent.
What Is Pregnancy Brain?
Pregnancy brain is a term used to describe occasional absent-mindedness, impaired memory, and an inability to concentrate while pregnant and in early motherhood. (Think repeatedly misplacing your sunglasses, forgetting details of an article you just read, or having your mind trail off mid-conversation.)
Recently, a review of 20 studies evaluating over 700 pregnant and more than 500 nonpregnant women found that many pregnant women reported experiencing baby brain symptoms. They had a more challenging time remembering things, thinking clearly, and performing executive functions (i.e. planning, focusing, recalling instructions, and multitasking).
Thankfully, although it may make you feel self-conscious, the review also found that the symptoms of pregnancy brain aren’t likely to affect your overall daily performance, and are most noticeable only to you and those closest to you.
Other science suggests that pregnancy brain is more common in women experiencing depression shortly before childbirth—which makes sense, seeing as how brain fog is a common symptom of depression. (Learn more about perinatal and postpartum depression, as well as the lesser talked about, but more common, postpartum anxiety.)
The important thing to remember is that there’s nothing wrong with you if you’re experiencing baby brain—and you’re far from alone. You’re not declining cognitively overall; it’s only a temporary pregnancy and early motherhood symptom. In fact, investigations are underway into how pregnancy brain may actually affect your brain in a positive way, preparing you for your transition into motherhood. We’ll explore those benefits a bit later.
How Soon Do You Get Pregnancy Brain?
Every pregnancy is different—just as no two kiddos are the same. You may start to feel the fogginess of pregnancy brain setting in as early as your first trimester, continuing through your second, and having its greatest impact on you in your final trimester. According to animal studies, it can even begin as early as your third week of pregnancy. And, no, you’re not imagining it. There are valid reasons behind why you may feel the way you do. Pregnancy actually changes your brain—in structural ways that can last two years or more—especially if you’re a first-time mommy or on your second time around. But, before we get into all those amazing discoveries—and don’t worry, there’s nothing detrimental about them—let’s take a look at some other culprits.
What Causes Pregnancy Brain?
Hormones that arise during pregnancy do indeed affect your brain. However—even if it might feel like it—they’re not thought to negatively impact your overall brain function or thinking capacity. When you’re pregnant, everything changes: your body, your lifestyle, your (ahem) bodily functions. These internal adjustments include the plasma levels of important neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, which can wreak havoc on your mood, emotions, and sleep. So, next time you cry at a commercial for car insurance, or some other usually-benign topic, know that there’s good reason—and we’re here to tell you to go ahead, have a good cry whenever you need to.
While it’s true that increased hormones and their fluctuations can rattle your brain—and no other time as intensely as when you’re pregnant—research on the direct relationship between hormones and pregnancy brain is scarce. There were only a few dozen studies on it in the last century.
Then, there’s the simple fact that you’re pregnant. You may spend a lot of time thinking about your little bundle to come, which can be joyful, but also stressful. Sleep may be hard to come by too, especially as you have to more and more accommodate your growing baby. And when anybody is stressed, anxious, or just tired, they’re more prone to feeling absent-minded, forgetful, or unable to concentrate.
What Happens To a Woman's Brain During Pregnancy?
In 2016, a groundbreaking study between researchers from the Netherlands and Spain used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of pregnant women. They discovered striking changes in the architecture of the women’s brains during their pregnancy. Though not harmful, they found that gray matter—which houses brain cells and nerve synapses—shrunk in areas of the brain involved with processing and responding to social signals.
We know, it sounds alarming, but as a result, the new moms’ brains were wired more efficiently for activities such as detecting threats in their environment, attending to their infants’ needs, and bonding with their babies. In short: One could say the researchers stumbled upon the neurological development of the mommy instinct. Cool stuff, right?
Interestingly, the areas of the brain that shrunk the most specialize in reading what someone else is thinking or feeling (a.k.a. social cognition). After childbirth, when the mommies were shown a picture of their little ones, those same areas of the brain danced with activity. Improving your social cognition to pick up on your baby’s cues is what enables you to decode your infant’s cries and coos and understand their needs.
The effects of pregnancy brain are thought to be the result of this maternal rewiring. You may be constantly forgetting things or misplacing items, but that’s likely because they’re not critical to your baby’s survival. Instead, your body redirects energy and resources towards caring for your infant. Meaning, you quite literally have your baby on the brain.
Sure, in the moment, pregnancy brain may feel unpleasant, but by rearranging neural priorities, your brain is able to fine-tune itself for mommying. The human body is an amazing thing—especially when it has the ability to autotune itself!
Does Pregnancy Brain Go Away?
Your maternal neurological rewiring has the benefit of maturing your brain and allowing it to specialize in certain areas related to motherhood. This miraculous change can last two years or more, enabling you to care for your little one as they grow from an infant into a toddler and hit important milestones. Fortunately, it’s only the structural changes in your brain that stick around—not the symptoms of pregnancy brain. Those should start to fade as your influx of pregnancy hormones subsides and you start getting more sleep—when your child is around 6 to 12 months old and starts snoozing through the night. Pregnancy brain symptoms can even be gone as soon as a week after settling into some quality Zzzs. So, whenever the opportunity presents itself, hit the hay!
How Can I Prevent Pregnancy Brain?
Not to be a Debbie Downer but, since baby brain is caused by your body’s response to being pregnant and impending motherhood, there’s no magic loophole that can help you avoid it. Remember: The majority of pregnant women experience it—50-80%. So, try your best to remind yourself that it’s not forever, you’re far from alone, it’s a side effect of important changes in your body, and that there are ways you can help manage it and tamp down on the symptoms.
How Can You Help Pregnancy Brain?
It’s best not to think of pregnancy brain as a personal prison—an easy trap to fall into, we know. Instead, focus on what you can do to help relieve it and make your life easier in the process.
Laugh at your baby brain mishaps: First and foremost, try to hang on to your sense of humor. Sure, walking into a room and forgetting entirely why you’re there isn’t exactly fun, but being able to laugh at predicaments that arise because of your pregnancy brain can actually help improve its symptoms. Laughter is often the best medicine, after all. Having a good chuckle helps your body cope better by increasing your oxygen intake, stimulating your lungs, circulation, and muscles, and increasing endorphins (a.k.a. your pain-relieving, energy-pumping, happy hormones). It can raise, then lower your stress response, reducing your blood pressure and heart rate in the process. And a healthy giggle can promote relaxation. Your pregnancy brain may lead you into some embarrassing situations (but remember: you notice them more than anyone). So, try your best to find and appreciate the humor in them.
Sleep as much as possible: We realize we’ve already given you the sleep preach. But it’s worth reiterating. Mommies, especially new ones, can lose up to 700 hours of sleep in their baby’s first year alone, causing your brain and energy to focus primarily on looking after your infant—and hardly anything else. It’s no wonder you feel foggy! Who wouldn’t? Even before they’re born, however, the most effective thing you can do to mitigate the effects of pregnancy brain is to try and get as many quality snoozes as you can.
Simplify & slow down: Another admittedly easier-said-than-done tip is to try to simplify your life as much as possible. For the time being, set aside any energy-drains that you can. Everything gets more complicated with a new baby, so clearing any background noise that you’re able to can help.
Along the same lines, slow down on multitasking as much as you can (you’ll be doing a ton of that once your little one arrives). Pregnancy brain affects your memory and focus, so try not to overload them even more by taking on too much. Give yourself permission to take breaks and deep breaths when you need them.
Make lists: Speaking of lists, an easy way to help yourself not forget things is to write them down. It may also help avoid the spiral that comes with worrying that you will forget something, which will only make baby brain worse. Take notes on your phone, computer, or tablet. Or go old school and actually put pen to paper.
Set reminders & alarms: There are countless apps you can download to set reminders and alarms. Just be sure to try and remember to keep your phone or the device they’re on close by or within earshot.
Ask for help: You may instinctively feel the need to do everything on your own. But, please know, that you don’t have to, and your loved ones likely don’t want you to. It’s OK to ask for help—and we encourage it, especially as it pertains to activities that should be avoided while pregnant. You may be surprised at how relieved you may feel when even a little pressure is taken off your shoulders.
Eat a healthy, brain-friendly diet: Certain foods help fuel your brain functioning. These include ones that contain a mineral called choline, which helps create a memory-enhancing chemical called acetylcholine. You can find it in eggs, nuts, beans, fish, and spinach. Other nutrients that help support your brain are omega-3s. Eggs, nuts, soy beans, salmon, and green leafy veggies all contain a healthy dose of them.
A Few More Surprising Benefits of Pregnancy Brain
Along with pregnancy brain largely being the result of rewiring meant to prepare you for motherhood, one study suggests that there could be a few other lasting benefits. In animal studies—assuming baby brain has subsided—mommies performed better on learning, cognition, and memory tasks. Even in older animals—equivalent to mommies in their mid-80s—moms were better at learning spatial tasks and had less memory decline than their non-mommy peers.
So, even though pregnancy brain can be challenging—and, at times, frustrating— to deal with, hang it there. That fog contains pretty impressive mommying benefits!
Next: As we mentioned, having a running list of to-dos can be super helpful, especially when you're trying to navigate the world through the fogginess of baby brain. Well, no worries on creating some of them. Here, find our handy checklists for nursery must-haves, nursery safety, preparing a birth plan, and stocking your diaper bag.