Mom Brain: Understanding How Motherhood Affects the Mind
After having a baby, it isn’t uncommon to feel as if you’re no longer “you.” And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Your life changes, your body changes, your relationships change, and so on. It’s only natural that you feel different, especially when the way you think changes, too. Postpartum and transitioning into the 5th trimester, you may experience mom brain and feelings of mom guilt. Marked by memory loss, mom brain, in particular, leaves many mothers feeling like a totally different person. As for why this happens, that’s something researchers are still working to understand. Recently, more studies have come out that indicate your brain can actually change after pregnancy. Here, we’ll share some of those findings, discuss whether mom brain is real, and offer tips that can help with forgetfulness.
What Is Mom Brain?When pregnant women and new mothers feel forgetful or deal with brain fog, it’s referred to as “mom brain.” Other names for this state of mind include baby brain and “momnesia.” If you feel these terms capture your pregnancy or postpartum experience, you aren’t alone. According to one study, 80% of pregnant women report memory loss. Among postpartum women, reports of memory loss are similar. It’s also an extremely popular topic of discussion—”mom brain” produces over 450 million Google search results. Not to mention the millions of mom brain memes and many mom brain podcast episodes that exist. For some moms, this newfound forgetfulness may lead to funny scenarios (befitting a name like momnesia), like searching for your phone while it’s in your hand. But mom brain isn’t a joke; others may find the impact more serious. It could result in dangerous situations. Mistakenly showing up for a pediatrician's appointment on the wrong day or forgetting your baby’s shoes on a cold morning can also exacerbate mommy guilt. Instead of managing this alone, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional when memory loss is a concern. Some reports suggest an actual change in your brain causes the forgetfulness experienced by soon-to-be moms and new mothers. We’ll dig into the truth of that next.
Is Mom Brain Real?Moms can—and absolutely do—experience brain fog. The stress and lack of sleep often associated with being a parent (and becoming one) can impact memory and result in forgetfulness. After all, just one night without sleep can significantly affect memory. Some experts also say that the fluctuation in hormones after childbirth may temporarily impact attention and memory processes in the brain. So yes, mom brain is real. However, the research doesn’t necessarily suggest that “mom fog” or “momnesia” is due to motherhood changing the brain. Numerous studies indicate that there is no evidence of cognitive deterioration as a result of pregnancy or motherhood. Of course, that doesn’t make the effects of mom brain during pregnancy and afterward any less serious.
How Motherhood Affects Your BrainWhile experiencing childbirth may not rewire your brain to make you forgetful, there is research that indicates pregnancy changes your brain in other ways. Studies suggest that many parts of the brain are affected by motherhood, including the hypothalamus (involved in sleep and emotional activity), amygdala (involved in the experiencing of emotions), nucleus accumbens (involved in motivation processing), and the hippocampus (involved in memory and learning). Authors of research published by the American Psychological Association speculate that increases in hormones, including estrogen, oxytocin, and prolactin, help make mothers’ brains susceptible to changes that can help support their babies. Below, we’re breaking down some of the changes that may occur during and after pregnancy.
AttentivenessIn contrast to what’s commonly believed, research actually indicates that mothers may be more attentive than non-mothers. One study found that moms may have better executive control attention, in particular. This refers to an ability to detect and resolve conflicts among competing mental processes.
PraiseDo you feel compelled to tell your little one they’re the most perfect baby ever? If yes, it could have to do with very real changes to your brain. (Of course, that isn’t to say they aren’t really perfect!) One study found that motherhood may cause parts of the brain to actually grow. Researchers compared women’s brains two to four weeks postpartum and three to four months postpartum. What they found was that in between, gray matter (which makes up the outermost layer of the brain) increased in multiple areas. Notably, this type of increase typically does not happen over such a short period of time without a major change (like a brain injury). The areas where this change was observed are responsible for supporting maternal motivation, reward and emotion processing, sensory integration, and reasoning and judgment. The study found that mothers inclined to call their babies “special,” “beautiful,” and “perfect” (along with similar praise) were more likely to develop bigger mid-brains in areas associated with maternal motivation, reward and emotion processing.
Cognitive flexibilityMothers may be able to better adapt their behavior and thinking to their environment—a skill that certainly comes in handy when parenting. This cognitive flexibility was observed in a study comparing women and non-mothers. The results indicated increased cognitive flexibility regardless of the postpartum stage the mother was in.
EmpathyThe world associates mothers with love and empathy, and this connection might actually be supported by science. In a study on how parents and non-parents react to adults and children in pain, researchers looked at differences in empathy responses. When shown depictions of pain, mothers activated key regions of the brain associated with empathy for pain. They also activated areas linked to social affect and cognition. The results suggested that motherhood can impact empathy levels and that mothers are equally empathic toward adults and children.
Reaction to cryingIt’s widely believed that there’s something innate about motherhood that allows moms to pick their baby’s cry out of a crowd. Research, however, points toward this not being the case. A 2020 study found that the ability to recognize your baby’s cries isn’t specific to parenthood. What has a greater influence is how much exposure you’ve had to the baby’s crying and your level of experience in caring for infants. With that said, a baby’s cries can have interesting effects on a mother’s brain. A study from the National Institutes of Health found that mothers have hard-wired reactions to infants crying. In the experiment, when a baby cried, it activated parts of the brain linked with the intention to move and speak, the production of speech, and sound processing. This was true for both new and experienced moms. When you hear your baby cry and feel a maternal instinct to take action, use that drive to determine the type of cry. This can help you understand why they’re fussy and how to respond. High-pitched cries of pain, for example, might be a sign of discomfort caused by gas. If your baby is gassy, Infants’ Mylicon® Gas Relief Drops in the dye-free or original formula can help your little one feel better.
Facial recognitionWhile more research is needed, preliminary findings suggest pregnant women may have increased emotion and face recognition. Pretty neat, right?
How Long Does Pregnancy Affect The Brain?Pregnancy can have long-lasting effects, and your brain is no exception. A new study indicates some brain changes persist for at least two years after childbirth. As for how long mommy brain lasts, the answer can vary. If a lack of sleep contributes to your forgetfulness, you may find it improves when your little one starts sleeping through the night. And, per Stanford Medicine, two-thirds of children sleep through the night regularly by the time they hit six months. In one study on mom brain, which looked at women at least one year postpartum and compared them to non-mothers, they did not find significant differences between the two groups. This indicates that if mom brain does occur, the effects don’t last past one year.
Tips For Dealing With Mom BrainWhether a change in your brain is responsible for mom brain or not, memory loss can be very real and frustrating. It can be a particular nuisance when you try to participate in the “real world” or return to work after baby. If you’re concerned about your memory or attentiveness, first and foremost, we recommend consulting your doctor. They can help you better understand how to improve memory loss after pregnancy. There are also some lifestyle changes you can implement to help manage forgetfulness. Even those that aren’t experiencing mom brain may find them helpful.
- Get plenty of sleep. It’s easier said than done—especially if you’re a new mom—but sleep can make a big difference in your memory. The Mayo Clinic recommends getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night. While you may not be able to get nine straight hours for the foreseeable future (dare to dream), you can do your best to sleep when your baby sleeps.
- Remember to eat. When you’re focused on your family, it’s easy to forget to care for yourself. Make sure you’re eating and getting the nutrients you need.
- Adopt organizational systems. Don’t try to keep track of everything in your head. Rather, rely on technology—or pen and paper—to keep you organized. To-do lists and calendars can help you manage important details that would otherwise slip your mind. Organization is also key for remembering where you’ve left things. Set up a designated spot for essential items like your keys and wallet, and keep a well-stocked diaper bag (make sure to replenish things right after you use them). You can also organize the nursery so you know exactly where to find what you need.
- Make (and keep) social plans. Being away from your baby can be hard, but you need time with adults, too. Spending time with friends and family is important, even when your schedule is packed.
- Read. Picking up a good book is a great way to relax, and it helps keep your mind active (which may help prevent memory loss). While you may not have the luxury to breeze straight through a book, try reading a few pages before bed each night. If you aren’t a reader, consider other activities that are good for your brain, like solving crossword puzzles or practicing a musical instrument.