The 411 on Mom Brain and What to Do to Help Your Memory
Have you or someone you know experienced serious forgetfulness during pregnancy or soon after having baby? (The postpartum period — the first three months after giving birth.) It’s sometimes called “momnesia,” “mom brain” or “pregnancy brain.” There is a study out there that has cast doubt on whether there is such a thing as pregnancy brain, but from what I have seen from my clients over the years and the stories that I have heard, I believe it’s absolutely true.
So, if it is real, what are some things that can you do about it while you’re pregnant? Well, there are a variety of things you can do. I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “Is there any chance of returning to the way I was?” Which was able to remember names and faces, birthdays, and when it’s your turn to bring in snacks? The good news is, absolutely.
Pregnancy Brain Is Real, but…
First, let me say that pregnancy does not actually change a woman’s brain even though some women don’t feel as sharp as usual when they’re pregnant. Helen Christensen, PhD, 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.” But, she adds, “the evidence from our study shows that the capacity of the brain is unaltered in pregnancy.” Interesting.
What Causes “Momnesia?”
It’s 100% normal to have memory lapses or be forgetful when you’re busy, stressed, or short on sleep. That’s my life. I’m not pregnant or a mom yet, but I will sometimes forget important things due to the amount of things on my mind, the minimal hours of sleep I get at night, etc. 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 that you can remember at a time so the things that are most important to you are going to win. The majority of that is usually baby stuff.
Hormones may also affect spatial memory, which includes remembering where things are, in pregnant women and new moms.
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 is about to get a lot more complicated. When the baby arrives, sleep deprivation is clearly 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 that pregnancy brain/mom brain is real, in a sense, what can you do?
Write things down.
Jotting things down, whether on a grocery list or a list of questions to ask your obstetrician can really help. The human brain can only hold about seven bits of information in working memory at a time, though it can obviously 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 by 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 a period of two weeks to those who stayed awake for three days. They found that the eight-hour sleepers did fine, but the four- and six-hour ones performed just as poorly as the folks who hadn’t gotten any shut-eye at all.
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 it. 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, it grounds them. They will forget about their bad day by focusing on whatever they’re 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. But the one that has the greatest impact on a mom’s memory is iron. Did you know that as many as 25 percent of all pregnant women are iron-deficient?! 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 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?