Have you or someone you know experienced severe forgetfulness during pregnancy or soon after having a baby? (The postpartum period — the first three months after giving birth.) It’s sometimes called “momnesia,” “mom brain,” or “pregnancy brain.” Some cast doubt on whether there is such a thing as pregnancy brain, but from what I have seen from my clients over the years, the stories that I have heard, and what I have personally experienced, I believe it’s real.
So, if it is real, what are some things you can do about it during pregnancy? And I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “Is there any chance of returning to the way I was?” Like, remembering names and faces, birthdays, and when it’s your turn to bring in snacks? The good news is, yes, there are a variety of things you can do.
Pregnancy Brain Is Real, but . . .
First, let me say that becoming a mother does change a woman’s brain. Expecting women don’t feel as sharp as they usually do when they’re pregnant. Helen Christensen, Ph.D. of The Australian National University, says, “If you read pregnancy manuals and listen to pregnant mothers, yes, there is such a thing as pregnancy brain or momnesia. And there is also evidence from research showing deficits in memory.”
What Causes “Momnesia?”
It’s 100% normal to have memory lapses or be forgetful when you’re busy, stressed, or short on sleep. Jane Martin, MD, director of the Neuropsychological Testing and Evaluation Center at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, agrees. “When you are not getting enough sleep and are multitasking, nobody’s memory is good,” she says. “You are not cognitively sharp when you haven’t slept well. Also, surging hormone levels and new priorities may help explain why pregnancy brain happens.”
Pregnancy also shuffles what gets your attention. Your IQ doesn’t change, but your priorities do. You only have so much you can remember at a time, so the most important things to you are going to win. Often, the majority of that is usually baby stuff.
In pregnant women and new moms, hormones may also affect spatial memory, including remembering where things are.1
How to Help Your Memory:
If you feel you’re not as sharp as usual, that should be your first clue. When you are preparing to have a baby, you need to simplify other areas of your life because life will get a lot more complicated. When the baby arrives, sleep deprivation is a contributing factor. Louann Brizendine, MD, director of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, says, “Women accumulate up to 700 hours of sleep debt in the first year after having a baby, and that causes the brain not to be at its best for things other than caring for the baby.” Isn’t that wild?!
So now that we know pregnancy brain/mom brain is real, in a sense, what can you do?
Write things down.
Whether it’s a grocery list or a list of questions to ask your obstetrician, jotting things down can help. The human brain can only hold about seven bits of information in working memory at a time, though it can store a lot more than that if needed.
If the days, weeks, or years since you became a mother feel like one big blank, give yourself a break. So what if you can’t remember the name of the last novel you read or where your husband took you on your last birthday? What you’ll never forget are the things that really matter: your baby’s first smile, your toddler’s first halting steps, and the utter joy of being a mom.
Things that you can do, though, are making lists, leaving sticky notes for yourself, using a day planner, or whatever it is that can help you stay organized.
Get more sleep.
This may be tricky for new parents, but it can make a real difference. Most moms need more deep sleep, and within a week of getting better sleep, some of this momnesia stuff goes away.
New information is solidified in the brain while you sleep, so not getting enough can affect your ability to remember things. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine compared the response times and memorization skills of people who’d slept for four, six, or eight hours per night over two weeks to those who stayed awake for three days. They found that the eight-hour sleepers did okay. However, the four- and six-hour ones performed as poorly as the folks who hadn’t gotten any sleep.2
Cortisol, the same hormone that comes into play during childbirth, kicks in whenever we’re stressed. With the challenges of raising kids, moms might as well be mainlining it, which means an almost constant assault on the brain’s memory centers.
The key isn’t to try to avoid stress but to figure out how to manage stress. You can use exercise (such as yoga classes) or maybe read a few pages of a novel to help with your stress. Anything that enables you to relax. Don’t have much time? Find a quiet place and try to focus on your breathing for a few minutes. Close your eyes, imagine someone you love, and breathe deeply as you think of that person.
If you can’t get a second to yourself, unwind with your kids. You can sit down with them and color with your toddler for fifteen minutes or take your little ones on a walk. I find that when mothers are around their children doing something together, it grounds them. They will forget about their bad day by focusing on whatever their little one is doing at that moment together.
Balance your diet.
Certain nutrients, including zinc (found in meats and fortified cereals), vitamin B12, and folic acid, may affect memory when in short supply.3 But the one that has the most significant impact on a mom’s memory is iron.4 Did you know that as many as 25% of all pregnant women are iron-deficient?!5 Yup! During pregnancy, not only does the baby’s growth sap your stores but the increase in your blood volume dilutes them as well. The loss of blood during childbirth (and every month from your period, when it comes back) also takes a toll. Afterward, time constraints can keep you from eating well.
Live in the moment. If you don’t focus on what’s going on, there’s no way you’ll remember it. When you’re getting some important information, turn off the TV, leave the playroom, do whatever it takes to allow you to be able to listen.
Cut down on the things you need to remember.
Call it what you will —baby brain drain, maternal absentmindedness—the phenomenon of forgetfulness is a fact of life for moms, often setting in even before they give birth. Have you experienced mom brain? What are some things that have helped you feel back to your usual self?