Baby brain. Preg head. Momnesia. As quirky and slightly funny as these terms sound, for many expectant mothers (and plenty of newly minted moms as well) who experience a mystifying loss of memory during pregnancy and post-delivery, this is a genuinely frustrating and worrying experience. So, is forgetfulness during pregnancy a given or is it a sort of Russian roulette, randomly experienced by some? The phenomenon gives rise to many more questions: Why does it happen? And what can one do to cope?
Does “Baby Brain” Even Exist?
While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, medical science is still trying to figure out the widely reported phenomenon of pregnancy-related forgetfulness. It first started with studies in the 1960s that reported poor recent memory, distractibility, and lack of concentration in pregnant women. Several studies ensued after that.1 In one study, two-thirds of the participants reported that they had experienced one or more of the following: short-term memory loss, forgetfulness, and inability to concentrate. Interestingly, women who were married or had a partner, who were older, or had a good education level reported more of these changes.2 In another research study conducted at the Bristol Maternity Hospital, UK, the majority of pregnant women volunteers reported that their memory was impaired.3 One Australian study researched pregnancy-related memory loss among 3 groups of women – those who were pregnant for the first time, new mothers, and a third group who had never been pregnant. Some of their findings were:
- The pregnant women did have a degree of memory loss.
- Several of the women in the second group continued to experience forgetfulness in the months after delivery.
- Women in the first two groups scored considerably lower on tests involving short-term memory.4
The last finding is corroborated by another recent study that analyzed 17 years of research on the subject. This study concluded that not all aspects of memory were affected by pregnancy. Rather, the analysis indicated, pregnant women typically experienced forgetfulness when the tasks involved were difficult or relatively unfamiliar (for instance, forgetting a recently memorized telephone number).5
Likely Causes Of Forgetfulness During Pregnancy
There could be several reasons for bouts of memory loss in pregnancy.
Bodily changes, fatigue, sleep deprivation: In the second Australian study, the pregnant volunteers reported difficulty in falling asleep. It’s possible, the study concludes, that this change in their routine – and the resultant fatigue, perhaps – could make women feel they were forgetting things during their waking hours.6
Hormonal changes: A woman’s body undergoes enormous, hormone-driven changes during pregnancy to prepare her for motherhood. It is thought that these changes may come at the cost of temporary losses in memory function.7
Cultural expectation: Could culture have a role to play in forgetfulness during pregnancy? While scientific testing does point to some but not a major decline in cognitive functions, it’s possible that there’s a social expectation of forgetfulness around a pregnant woman – and she buys into that!8
Emotional upheaval: A woman’s first pregnancy is a maze of mixed emotions, from excitement and joy to worry and depression. Studies show that these extreme emotional swings in a first pregnancy can affect memory function. Happily, there are pointers to the effect that women who have repeat pregnancies experience far less anxiety and, hence, do not appear to have the same levels of memory loss as first-time moms.9
But this is not all black and white. Confusingly, other research negates many of these findings. The objectivity of some of these studies where participants “report” their problems have also been questioned, with some researchers indicating that factors like sleep deprivation or low mood, anxiety, or even depression might be at the root of this alleged memory loss.10 11 One study even concluded that forgetfulness is present only in the last trimester but it cannot be attributed to mood swings, loss of sleep, or any other bodily changes during pregnancy!12
The bottom line is that while even scientists find it hard to ignore the widespread anecdotal evidence on forgetfulness during pregnancy, the reasons behind this mystifying phenomenon are not so easy to unravel – and even rigorous research produces conflicting results.13
While medical science puzzles over the existence of the “baby brain,” what’s a pregnant – and forgetful – woman to do? A few sensible measures will help you through those difficult times14:
Avoid multi-tasking. For instance, if you’re trying to recall a relatively new phone number, stop whatever else you’re doing. Try visualizing yourself calling that person’s number. Limiting yourself to one task, and the calming effect this has may help.
Organize your space. Keep important stuff like keys or files always in one place rather than leaving them wherever convenient.
Maintain a diary. Jot down important tasks date-wise the moment they occur to you. If you’re a procrastinator, this is the time to change!
Get your priorities right. That’s the message, perhaps, that your body – and brain – is sending. So cut back on unimportant tasks and focus on essentials.
Stay rested. As anyone would agree, sleep deprivation, even if one is not pregnant, can lead to occasional forgetfulness.15 Pampering yourself with several extra winks will help you feel refreshed, alert, and less anxious, all of which may stave off memory drops.
Nourish your brain. The right foods can play a helpful role in boosting memory. Avoid high-fat foods as these increase cholesterol levels, which in turn reduce oxygen supply to the brain. Instead, eating foods that nourish brain and nerve functions. Brown rice, soy, lentils, and at least five servings of fruits and veggies are some foods you must include in your diet. Rosemary, often termed “the remembrance herb,” is an easy add-on to your cooking. Lecithin (found in soybeans and wheat germ) and plant estrogen (from seeds and nuts) can also help memory functions.16
Meditate. Meditation is easy and free! While its calming effect is widely known, there are pointers as well to its beneficial effects on cognitive function and memory loss17 Mindfulness meditation, for instance, is a gentle practice where you learn to focus on the present and relieve yourself of stressful thoughts of the past and future.18
You can also try music-based meditation. Schedule a time of day when you are likely to be undisturbed. Sit comfortably and calm your thoughts. Close your eyes as you listen to chants or instrumental music. This, too, is a form of meditation that will help calm you, reduce mental hiccups, and curb any fatigue.19
Post pregnancy too, when you’re incessantly busy caring for your baby, forgetfulness is pretty much a given and not a cause for concern, as older mothers will advise you. If you feel persistently anxious or depressed about it, though, talk to your doctor.
|↑1||Butters, Meryl, Sue R. Beers, Ralph E. Tarter, Kathleen L. Edwards, and David H. van Thiel, eds. Medical neuropsychology. Springer Science & Business Media, 2001.|
|↑2||Parsons, C., and S. Redman. “Self-reported cognitive change during pregnancy.” The Australian journal of advanced nursing: a quarterly publication of the Royal Australian Nursing Federation 9, no. 1 (1990): 20-29.|
|↑3||Sharp, Katharine, Peter M. Brindle, Malcolm W. Brown, and Gillian M. Turner. “Memory loss during pregnancy.” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 100, no. 3 (1993): 209-215.|
|↑4, ↑11||Janes, C., P. Casey, C. Huntsdale, and G. Angus. “Memory in pregnancy. I: Subjective experiences and objective assessment of implicit, explicit and working memory in primigravid and primiparous women.” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology 20, no. 2 (1999): 80-87.|
|↑5, ↑6||Henry, Julie D., and Peter G. Rendell. “A review of the impact of pregnancy on memory function.” Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology 29, no. 8 (2007): 793-803.|
|↑7||Glynn, Laura M. “Giving birth to a new brain: hormone exposures of pregnancy influence human memory.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 35, no. 8 (2010): 1148-1155.|
|↑8||Crawley, Ros, Sophie Grant, and K. I. M. Hinshaw. “Cognitive changes in pregnancy: Mild decline or societal stereotype?.” Applied cognitive psychology 22, no. 8 (2008): 1142-1162.|
|↑9||Macbeth, Abbe H., and Victoria N. Luine. “Changes in anxiety and cognition due to reproductive experience: a review of data from rodent and human mothers.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 34, no. 3 (2010): 452-467.|
|↑10||Vermeulen, J., A. P. Aldenkamp, and W. C. J. Alpherts. “Memory complaints in epilepsy: correlations with cognitive performance and neuroticism.” Epilepsy research 15, no. 2 (1993): 157-170.|
|↑12||Keenan, P. A., D. T. Yaldoo, D. R. Fuerst, and K. A. Ginsburg. “Explicit memory in pregnant women.” American journal of obstetrics and gynecology 179, no. 3 (1998): 731-737.|
|↑13||Pregnancy ‘does cause memory loss’. The Guardian.|
|↑14||Gliksman, Michele Isaacs, and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo. The complete Idiot’s Guide to pregnancy and childbirth. Penguin, 2010.|
|↑15||Kushida, Clete A., ed. Sleep deprivation: clinical issues, pharmacology, and sleep loss effects. CRC Press, 2004.|
|↑16||Bragg, Paul C., and N. D. Patricia Bragg. Build Powerful Nerve Force. Health Science Publications, Inc., 2002.|
|↑17||Newberg, Andrew B., Nancy Wintering, Dharma S. Khalsa, Hannah Roggenkamp, and Mark R. Waldman. “Meditation effects on cognitive function and cerebral blood flow in subjects with memory loss: a preliminary study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 20, no. 2 (2010): 517-526.|
|↑18||Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress. Harvard Medical School.|
|↑19||Health Tips for Pregnant Women. Art of Living.|