Pregnancy Brain Exists, With Two Sets of Causes

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You knew there will be a lot of changes to your body during your pregnancy and after the birth of your baby. But what is going on with your brain? You can’t remember anything, you forget to buy half the stuff on your shopping list, and you have the attention span of a gnat. You don’t feel as mentally sharp as you usually do.

Many women say they experience some absentmindedness and forgetfulness during their pregnancies. It’s been called “pregnancy brain” and “momnesia.” But is it real?

The quick answer is that, yes, it is real. But, what causes it has never been completely clear. Some of it is due to the physical and hormonal changes brought by your pregnancy and some is due to the various nonphysical stresses of your pregnancy

First, some good news. There do not appear to be any permanent changes to your brain. Studies have shown that after you give birth and stop breastfeeding, your brain function is the same as women who haven’t given birth. An Australian study published in 2010 found no support to the idea that pregnancy and motherhood are associated with persistent deterioration in thinking or other brain function.

Let’s get the non-physical reasons for pregnancy brain out of the way first. Having a baby is extremely stressful. According to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, pregnancy is the twelfth most stressful life event, while gaining a new family member is the fourteenth most stressful. They rank at about the same amount of stress as a change in financial state and ahead of changing to a new line of work. Pregnancy and expecting a baby are a two-for-one of added stress. Pregnancy is a huge change to your life. You are planning and preparing for the new baby (including determining what you need and creating a nursery if it is your first child) and rearranging your life to schedule medical appointments, deal with issues like arranging for your maternity leave, and, if it is your second or third child, keep up with the needs of your older children. For some women, pregnancy can be a cause of serious anxiety for any number of reasons ranging from finances to an added stress on your relationship.

This means you are multitasking even more than you usually do and you are probably not getting as much sleep as normal to boot. Pregnancy can interfere with your sleep cycle and lack of sleep and poor sleep are well known to interfere with how well you can think and remember.

Your stress levels may be putting your head in a muddle, and the hormones that are surging through your system like a tsunami are muddling things up all on their own. Your body normally has amounts of progesterone and estrogen, but these hormone levels start to skyrocket during pregnancy. Another hormone, oxytocin, starts preparing your brain to be a mother by increasing activity in the parts of your brain that deal with empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. Oxytocin levels rise as your pregnancy moves forward because it readies your uterus for birth and your body to produce milk. It stays high in the period right after you have your baby. You are being primed to feel love, feel protectiveness, and worry about your baby.

So, if you are having some momnesia, chalk it up to your pregnancy and know that it is normal. But your still need to cope with the mental fog and forgetfulness. Create some coping strategies for yourself. If you find your self forgetting things, write notes to yourself. Make lists and keep them somewhere convenient.

You can keep things simple and just carry around a small notebook so you can jot things down before you forget them. Or you can go high tech. There are many apps for smart phones that allow you to make notes for yourself or keep your shopping and to-do lists right at hand.

Or go even higher tech. If you have one, use a smart speaker like the Amazon Echo (Alexa), Apple’s Siri, or Google Home. Tell the device to give you reminders or add items to your shopping list and it will help you keep track of things.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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