Pregnancy Brain: Fact or Fiction?

By Madeline Johnson

Does this scenario seem familiar? At work, where you normally keep everything and everyone focused and organized, your mind goes blank in the middle of a meeting, and you can’t recall what your boss just said to you.

At home, you start forgetting where you put your phone or your keys, lose track of what day the garbage goes out and when your dental appointment is, and can’t manage to complete even the simplest everyday task. Not to mention that you walk around feeling as if your head is in a fog or has been hijacked by aliens. What’s going on?

Well, if you’re pregnant, you may have pregnancy brain!

What Is Pregnancy Brain?

Pregnancy brain isn’t an official medical condition; rather, it’s a catchall term for some symptoms that affect many if not most moms-to-be at some point during their pregnancy. The symptoms and severity vary from woman to woman, but can include memory lapses, absentmindedness, an inability to concentrate, and general spaciness. When these conditions hit, sometimes all at once, it can throw you for a loop, especially when you’re dealing with the many physical and lifestyle changes that already come with being pregnant.

What Causes Pregnancy Brain?

It’s not clear what leads to the forgetfulness and general “momnesia" of pregnancy brain. One possible factor is pregnancy hormones. The big shifts in levels of estrogen and progesterone, for example, can produce a wide range of symptoms during pregnancy, many affecting brain function.

Another condition that affects many pregnant women – fatigue – can also contribute to foggy brains and faulty memories. And lack of sleep or poor quality sleep, both common complaints during pregnancy, may also be part of the mix. Yet these conditions can affect women who are not pregnant, and in some cases, affect men as well. So, is there something that’s unique to pregnant women?

Experts aren’t sure. Some research suggests that being pregnant does lead to memory impairment and reduced attention span, which often continue into the postpartum period, while other studies find that there’s little or no difference in these functions among women who are pregnant and those who are not.

One small but important study shows that pregnancy leads to changes in the brain’s structure, and that those changes may last up to two years after a woman gives birth. The researchers performed brain scans on women who were hoping to become pregnant with their first child, and then (for those who did conceive) repeated the scans after the women delivered. After comparing these scans with those of control groups (women who were not pregnant, and men), the scientists discovered that in the pregnant women there was a reduction of gray matter in certain areas of the brain. Experts suggest that this pruning or shedding of brain tissue helps the brain become more focused and efficient for the job that lies ahead – motherhood – and enables a new mom to form a stronger attachment to her baby.

What to Do About Pregnancy Brain

No matter what lies behind the brain fog, it’s worthwhile to have some tools and tips to help you focus and stay organized. Try the following strategies:

  1. Make lots of lists and put them everywhere – on your phone or computer, or in your purse. Sticky notes are great for posting on the bathroom mirror, the front door, or in the car.

  2. Your phone is probably always with you, so set reminders, timers, and calendars to help you stay on top of things.

  3. Choose and stick to a regular place for those important items you keep misplacing. A key bowl or hook near the door is a good place to stash your keys, for example.

  4. Learn and use some relaxation techniques. The more relaxed you are, the less likely you are to become confused or forget something.

  5. Prioritize the tasks in your life, and concentrate your time and attention on the most important ones. As the saying goes, don’t sweat the small stuff.

  6. Exercise every day, if possible. Physical activity offers a number of benefits during pregnancy, but one that is key is it increases blood flow throughout your body, including your brain.

  7. Get enough sleep. This is not the easiest goal to accomplish for many moms-to-be, but these tips for sleeping during pregnancy may help.

  8. Delegate. You don’t have to do everything yourself, so be willing to ask for help. Bonus point: learning to delegate and accept help now, before the baby arrives, saves you a lot of time and trouble later. Because once you’re a mom, you really can’t and shouldn’t do it all.

Finally, do your best to be patient as you go through this and as you face any other challenges during your pregnancy. Remind yourself that you’re doing a great job of nurturing your baby, and that it won’t be long now until you’re welcoming your newest family member.

Source: Hoekzema, et al. 2017. “Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure." Nature Neuroscience 20(2):287-296. doi: 10.1038/nn.4458

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