Is ‘Baby Brain’ A Real Thing When Pregnant?

Science-Backed Facts About The Brain During Pregnancy 

A pregnant woman’s brain can often be associated with the label ‘baby brain’ insinuating a brain that’s forgetful and absent-minded, but is it a reality which occurs when the brain changes during pregnancy? Are pregnant women and new mums guaranteed to get ‘baby brain’ or is it an assumption without evidence, which women merely accept they have? And are there positive changes in the brain that we don’t know about, which can help shift the ‘baby brain’ mindset

The only way to find out the facts is by reviewing the scientific evidence surrounding the so-called ‘baby brain’. 

Changes In Brain Structure

Expert Yvonne Butler Tobah, M.D. explains how “a recent review of 20 studies assessing more than 700 pregnant and 500 non-pregnant women concluded that general cognitive functioning, memory and executive functioning were poorer in pregnant women. However, the changes are likely to be noticeable only to the pregnant women and those close to them and less likely to affect job performance.”

So, if a pregnant woman does experience any negatively perceived brain-changing side effects, then they’re mostly only noticeable by themselves, not others. A bit like when someone’s having a ‘quiet day’ or an ‘ugly day’ usually it’s only perceived by the person in question. 

Positive Adaptation To Parenting

A person’s brain adapts when they’re pregnant and even better still, it can change in a good way.

Tobah says that research is continually being carried out to find the positive ways in which a pregnant woman’s brain can change: “Another recent study compared the MRI scans of women’s brains before pregnancy and after giving birth, to the brain scans of women who have never given birth. The scans of women after pregnancy showed changes in brain structure that might help women adapt to motherhood.” 

Researcher Pilyoung Kim agrees with Tobah’s comments and explains how “new mothers undergo dynamic neural changes that support positive adaptation to parenting and the development of mother-infant relationships.” In her 2017 study, Human Maternal Brain Plasticity: Adaptation to Parenting, Kim finds the following: 

  • “Pregnancy and the early postpartum period represent a sensitive period for the human maternal brain. 
  • Changes in the maternal brain are significant and are designed to support mothers in managing the new and demanding tasks of parenting and building strong relationships with their infants. 
  • However, different factors such as mood disorders, severe stress, and trauma may increase vulnerabilities in mothers by disrupting normative changes in the brain. 
  • Given high plasticity in the human maternal brain, the pregnancy and the early postpartum period may be a period during which the maternal brain can be highly responsive to both negative experience (e.g. stress) and positive experience (e.g. interventions). 
  • After cognitive behavioral therapy during pregnancy, attentional sensitivity toward infant pictures was improved among depressed mothers, and became comparable to those of nondepressed pregnant women (Pearson et al., 2013).”

Some of these brain adaptations are beneficial but others can cause extra sensitivity and expose pregnant women to new emotions and feelings out of their control. This is why Kim recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) during pregnancy, to help re-train any negative thought processes as a result of the changes in the brain. 

Reductions In Brain Grey Matter Mass

Some studies have shown that cognitive impairment during pregnancy is a real thing. In their 2018 study, Sasha J Davies et al., looked into the reports that a large proportion of pregnant women note a decline in their cognitive functioning. They concluded that “general cognitive functioning, memory and executive functioning were significantly poorer in pregnant than in control women, particularly during the third trimester.” They state how their findings are consistent with “recent findings of long term reductions in brain grey matter volume during pregnancy.” The brain’s grey matter exists to process information in the brain, if there’s less of it then processing can be slower and/or less processing can be done. 

It’s A Farce

However, a splash of positivity comes from a well-known study by Psychology professor Michael Larson and team, who found that ‘baby brain’ or ‘mumnesia’ was in fact made up phenomenon which the brain begins to believe. 

The pregnant women in his study expected to get ‘’baby brain’ during tests they were given, so they ended up getting ‘’baby brain’ and the side effects that come with it, such as forgetting things and being clumsy. Larson stated: “I was surprised at how strong the feeling was that they weren’t performing well…This feeling of, “I really am doing badly right now” exists despite the objective evidence that they aren’t.” 

Perhaps the phrase ‘you become what you think’ may be true after all. 

Larson continues to describe how the expectation of having ‘baby brain’ may take over any other thoughts and make a pregnant woman “extra-alert to memory lapses.” His advice is to allow the mind to work at full capacity, without shadowing it with unnecessary doubts. 

Here are a few ways to avoid ‘baby brain’: 

  • Don’t think that you have ‘baby brain’ in the first place. Remind yourself that your cognitive functioning is better than ever when you’re pregnant. As a result, you should feel more alert, in-tune and together. 
  • Get the Peak – Brain Training app. Specific games can help you to train your focus, your memory and give you that feeling of accomplishment. 
  • Tiredness is unavoidable, but working on a plan to ensure you get a minimum amount of sleep each day will help you to feel more awake and switched on. Sleep.org has some nice tips on getting to sleep as peacefully as possible during pregnancy and after, for you and your baby. 
  • Being forgetful during pregnancy is something that pops up in most studies exploring ‘baby brain’. Try a few simple tricks to help you to remember things more easily, for example write lists, text yourself your to dos, stick a calendar on the wall, say what you need to do outloud or go old-school and tie a knot in a hankie. 

Always remember that you become what you think. So if you think you’re clumsy, forgetful and useless then that’s how you may become. However, if you think you’re doing an incredible job, you’re switched on and your cognitive ability is on fire, then that’s how your mind will function and think. Which option will you choose?

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Discover our latest articles on brain health, cognitive development and wellbeing:

Sources Cited: 

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/baby-brain/faq-2005789

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5667351/

https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2018/208/1/cognitive-impairment-during-pregnancy-meta-analysis

The Best Sleep Schedule for Babies: 0-3 months

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5667351/#R42

All information featured in Peak – Brain Training articles are provided for informational purposes only and are not substitutes for medical or physician advice.

Maisie Bygraves

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