You expect all the physical changes that occur in pregnancy: a burgeoning belly, swollen calves, and — if you’re really lucky — pregnancy hemorrhoids. But in addition to these telltale transformations, there are mental shifts and actual physiological brain alterations that happen, too.
If you’re feeling forgetful, absentminded, or just plain out of it, you’re not imagining things. It’s not regular day-to-day distraction at play — “pregnancy brain” is a real thing.
And while it can provide some humor in the moment (like, when you forget your date of birth at a prenatal appointment or discover you’ve shoved the car keys in the freezer — again!), it can also be frustrating and worrisome.
Want to understand the science driving this silliness and get some tips to help lift the fog? We’ve got your back — and your brain — covered.
During pregnancy and beyond, you may find yourself struggling to remember details, focus on tasks, or give your undivided attention to just about anything. This is casually referred to as “pregnancy brain” or “mommy brain.”
Pregnancy brain may begin as early as the first trimester of pregnancy, as this is when your body gets a major surge of hormones. Insomnia, a common affliction in early pregnancy, can exasperate this state of mental mushiness, too.
If you’re hoping the clouds will clear upon baby’s arrival, you’re in for a rude awakening. Hormones will continue to fluctuate postpartum and, of course, the sleep deprivation is just getting started.
You may feel more like yourself around 6 months after birth, if your hormone levels regulate, or it could last well into your child’s toddler years. Hold on to your thinking cap, it’s going to be a wild ride!
An expecting parent will experience several physical and mental changes that can lead to pregnancy brain. But, while anecdotal evidence of temporary cognitive decline is strong, the research has yielded mixed results.
A 2014 study found that while pregnant women and new moms reported more memory loss and forgetfulness than a control group of nonpregnant women, actual neuropsychological measurements showed little to no difference in the brain function of the two groups.
Still, other research — and a hearty dose of common sense — can pinpoint a few key contributors. At any given time, the effects of pregnancy brain are likely caused by one or more of these factors.
Ah, hormones — the veritable scapegoat of pregnancy problems. Experiencing an acne flare-up? Having mood swings? Sore breasts? Hormones, hormones, hormones.
It comes as no surprise, of course, that hormones are, indeed, a major player in all sorts of pregnancy-related afflictions.
Your body experiences a major surge of various hormones, such as progesterone and estrogen, during pregnancy — and some doctors and scientists believe that this dramatic spike could affect your ability to think clearly, recall easily, and focus mindfully.
One 2014 study found that pregnant women in their second trimester and beyond scored noticeably lower than non-pregnant women on Spatial Recognition Memory (SRM) tests. In other words, they had trouble remembering locations and spacial relations between different objects.
So if you can’t find your cell phone, it may not be your fault. Blame it on the hormones — and give yourself a call (assuming you can remember your own phone number).
At some point during pregnancy, most women will experience some degree of insomnia. Many moms-to-be will suffer from extreme exhaustion in the first trimester, and may never feel fully rested.
Plus, early nagging symptoms such as heartburn, leg cramps, and nausea may keep a woman from getting the slumber she so desperately needs.
Other expecting mamas will have a much harder time sleeping soundly later in pregnancy. Finding a comfortable position is a nearly impossible feat, aches and pains may be incessant, and you could be getting up to pee every half an hour.
Suffice to say, quality sleep is limited during those 9 tiresome months, and it is only the beginning of this exhaustive roller coaster.
Sleep deprivation can cause you to feel completely out of sorts. It can affect your mood and memory. When you sleep, your brain makes critical connections that help you process information — so losing those all-important Zzz’s could be why you’re also losing your train of thought.
Stress and anxiety
It’s safe to say that you have a lot weighing on your mind when you’re pregnant. You’re about to bring new life into the world — it’s heavy and exciting and totally overwhelming all at once.
You have preparations to make, appointments to keep, and tasks to accomplish. To top it off, you might be dealing with the very real and legitimate fear of childbirth.
So, yes, you have your fair share (and then some) on your proverbial plate, clogging up your mental space. It’s no surprise you may be having difficulty focusing.
Physical changes in the brain
As it turns out, there may be even more happening on a cellular level that’s further fueling pregnancy brain.
Scans showed that pregnant women will categorically experience a significant decrease in gray matter volume in areas of the brain that help with social cognition. These changes were also found to occur in parts of the brain that foster relationship building.
This could be the brain’s way of clearing space to make room for maternal attachment. So, while you may not be able to recall if you brushed your teeth in the morning, you will be ready to snuggle down like a mama bear.
Interestingly, follow-up scans showed that these volume changes can last for 2 years or more, meaning some aspects of pregnancy brain might stick around through your child’s toddler years.
You don’t need to throw in the towel and accept your forgetful fate just yet. There are some brain-boosting steps you can take to sharpen your mental acuity.
Sleep can be elusive in pregnancy and completely evasive in those early postpartum weeks and months.
Taking a few measures to try to quiet your mind and relax your body can help cultivate a more restful environment. Establish an evening routine, turn off your cell phone, and do some breathing exercises.
During sleep, your brain can form important connections that help encourage cognitive function — so do what you can to prioritize rest.
When all else fails, a cat nap can help. Twenty minutes of shut-eye will do the trick. A longer nap may sound tempting, but can leave you feeling groggy, as you will transition into a deeper stage of sleep — so keep the midday snoozes short and sweet.
You may have intense cravings and an insatiable appetite during pregnancy, and we support your need to feed, but we also suggest adding a few key ingredients to your next meal.
Certain foods high in antioxidants and vitamins have been proven to help with brain function. Here are a few to add to your upcoming grocery list:
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Salmon and other fatty fish are loaded with DHA and omega-3 fatty acids that help to build brain cells needed for cognition and memory.
- Blueberries. Rich in color and flavor, blueberries have antioxidants that fight brain-fogging inflammation and help boost communication between brain cells.
- Eggs. Egg yolks have a high concentration of choline, a nutrient that makes acetylcholine, which helps stabilize mood and improve memory.
- Spinach. Leafy green veggies are chock-full of vitamin K, folate, and other brain-empowering vitamins and minerals that can help fuel your ability to think and recall.
Drinking water is always vital, but it is arguably even more important during pregnancy and throughout your postpartum recovery — especially if you’re breastfeeding.
Your brain needs water to function properly. Even mild dehydration can have adverse effects on your ability to concentrate and totally zap your energy level — so drink up to perk up.
If you’re having trouble remembering things or maintaining focus, set yourself up for success by employing a few simple mind-triggering tactics.
There’s no need to tie a string around your swollen finger — just leave yourself sticky notes with simple reminders and friendly FYIs. A daily agenda planner can help you feel less scatterbrained and more organized. Use your smartphone — set alarms and fill in your calendar.
Play brain-boosting games
Just like your muscles need exercise to reach peak performance, your brain will benefit from a mental workout, too. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and other solo games will get your creaky gears going. Apps like Lumosity, Peak, and Elevate also offer clever activities to engage your mind.
Show yourself kindness
You have a lot going on physically, mentally, and emotionally during pregnancy and after a little one is born. Don’t beat yourself up if something slips your mind or you can’t seem to snap out of it. Learn to forgive when you forget, and try to find humor in the situation.
Pregnancy brain could have you feeling less than sharp. You might make a few mindless mistakes or temporarily lose your ability to think clearly, but, in time and with patience (and sleep), you will feel like your quick-witted self again.
In the meantime, recognize that there are real mental, physical, and physiological reasons why this is happening. It may even be your brain’s way of helping you transition into the all-consuming, totally overwhelming, and amazingly wonderful world of motherhood. And that is something worth remembering.