The keys to your car are sitting on the kitchen table, but you’ve been searching for them for the past hour. You think you took your prenatal vitamin five minutes ago, but you can’t say for sure. This mental fuzziness could be pregnancy brain (or “momnesia”) — a phenomenon that new mothers at all stages sometimes go through. That’s right, pregnancy brain can affect you whether you’re nine months pregnant or the parent of a toddler. The culprit? A combination of stress, fatigue, and heightened emotions.
In this post, we’ll delve into the physiological causes of pregnancy brain and suggest a few practical (and enjoyable) ways to combat it.
What is ‘pregnancy brain?’
This period of forgetfulness and fogginess begins during pregnancy and can last up to two years after giving birth. But what exactly is it and where does it come from?
Pregnancy brain is controversial, as some researchers insist that it is not neurological while many others have found a physiological basis for the condition. According to recent research published in Nature Neuroscience:
“We may speculate that the female brain undergoes a further maturation or specialization of the neural network subserving social cognition during pregnancy.”
The outcome of this maturation of the brain is a mother’s increased capability of taking care of her baby’s needs. From this angle, pregnancy brain could be viewed in a positive light because it takes Mom’s focus away from the outside world and laser beams in on her growing child.
Research is still emerging on the topic, but one thing is for certain: pregnancy brain represents your natural response to all the new responsibilities laid before you as a mother in conjunction with increased stress and decreased sleep.
What causes pregnancy brain?
Pregnancy brain is a triple crown of high stress, lack of sleep, and fluctuating emotions. Each of these elements plays a unique role in pregnancy brain.
Stress and Pregnancy Brain
Stress in excessive levels during pregnancy may lead to complications, but some maternal stress is unavoidable. During the pivotal years of infancy through toddlerhood, stress may climb to unprecedented heights as your child’s needs are virtually constant. The Mayo Clinic discusses an array of ramifications of stress, including forgetfulness, confusion, and difficulty concentrating — all hallmarks of pregnancy brain. Levels of the hormone cortisol (which Psychology Today calls “Public Enemy #1”) and your body’s stress levels rise together.
Normal maternal stresses like frequent diaper changing, little personal time, and feelings of isolation are only one facet of pregnancy brain. Lack of sleep and emotional peaks and valleys are other key factors.
Lack of Sleep and Pregnancy Brain
It’s impossible to get the recommended 7 or 8 hours of sleep a night when your fussy baby is waking up every 30 minutes. Lack of sleep for the general population has been linked to obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure, not to mention anxiety and stress. For the busy mothers of newborns, these effects, especially anxiety and stress, can be frustrating. How can you take care of yourself, your baby, your partner, your home, and your job when you’re running on empty?
With many psychologists now calling multitasking a myth that the brain is incapable of achieving, the average person would have trouble juggling all those responsibilities. For a mom with a clinging infant, the struggle is real, and you should not put yourself down about not “doing it all” as it turns out our brains may not even be wired this way.
Emotions and Pregnancy Brain
Swinging hormone levels also play a role in pregnancy brain, as estrogen dramatically drops after you give birth, leading sometimes to physical side effects, like postpartum hair loss, as well as mental ones. These hormonal changes are connected to the strong emotional attunement you feel to your child, which is why you can sometimes “hear” your baby crying even when you’re out of earshot. A 2015 study titled “The Maternal Brain and Its Plasticity in Humans” elaborates:
“After birth, the brain and body of mothers undergo dynamic changes to support the establishment and maintenance of maternal caregiving behaviors.”
Again, these changes shape how you mother and attach to your baby, showing that while multitasking may be a myth, supermoms are very real!
How to Combat Pregnancy Brain
Your life is completely different now that you’re a mother. Be patient with yourself if you’re a little more forgetful than usual. The most important job in the world just happens to be 24/7!
That said, here are a few ways to feel more alert in your everyday life:
- Energize naturally: While you may have enjoyed daily mocha lattes before you got pregnant, you may find that your body is more sensitive to caffeine now. Some pregnant moms even report coffee making them feel ill and intensifying morning sickness, which is possibly due to the dehydration that coffee causes. Instead, reach for a fresh, crisp apple, an energizing fruit that contains 13 grams of unprocessed sugar along with mega vitamins and minerals.
- Meditate: Your mom duties probably leave you with barely a smidgen of free time, but that may be enough to rewire your brain. Just five minutes of meditation can set the tone for your entire day and clear your head of negative thoughts. Even better, meditation may lower your cortisol levels, better equipping you to deal with midnight feedings and teething spells.
- Sleep: With the round-the-clock needs of your infant, a full night’s rest is rarer than blue diamonds. So, take control of your environment and make it a place designed for rest. Black-out curtains, no electronics after 8 p.m., and a few rounds of deep breathing can help you drift into sweet dreams.
Whether pregnancy brain is attributable to genuine neurological alterations, lifestyle changes, or a combination of both, there are ways for you to feel more like yourself. But on the days when it seems that everything in your life is a massive jumble, remember that your case of “momnesia” may be Nature’s way of giving your baby your undivided attention.