Is "Mommy Brain" Real?

Is it patronizing or does your brain actually change during pregnancy?

Updated 07/20/18

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If you find yourself putting your shoes in the fridge or filling your coffee machine with cereal, you may think you have an explanation for it: "Mommy brain." Mommy brain, also known as "baby brain" and "pregnancy brain," is the popular idea that when a woman is pregnant or a new mom, parts of her brain take a little vacation. She starts finding things difficult to remember, doing things that may not make a lot of sense, and sometimes can even feel a little uneasy with her lack of control.

But on the other hand, a lot of women find it difficult that they’re underestimated or patronized when they’re pregnant or a new mom—people shake their head and ask, “Baby brain?” even when they’ve done nothing wrong. So for some women it feels like a very present part of their motherhood, but others can find it a frustrating stereotype. That leaves one big question: Is mommy brain real?

With everything else your body is doing—like, you know, creating life—it would seem to make total sense that your brain might be a little preoccupied. And actually, science has looked into this phenomenon so we have some answers. Here’s what you need to know.

Your Brain Changes With Motherhood—But It’s Actually A Good Thing

First, the good news. Yes, motherhood does actually change your brain. According to research from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and IMIM that looked at the gray matter in the brain, new mothers actually were shown to have “significant reductions in grey matter in regions associated with social cognition” for at least the first two years of the baby’s life. Crucially though, while many jumped to this as proof that new mothers were somehow impaired, the researchers themselves stressed just the opposite.

“The findings point to an adaptive process related to the benefits of better detecting the needs of the child, such as identifying the newborn's emotional state. Moreover, they provide primary clues regarding the neural basis of motherhood, perinatal mental health and brain plasticity in general," said Oscar Villarroya, one of the study directors. That’s an important benefit of being a new mother. And, as Science Daily reports. “Researchers did not observe any changes in memory or other cognitive functions during the pregnancies and therefore believe that the loss of grey matter does not imply any cognitive deficits...” So your brain does change, but in ways that make you a better mother, not a more confused person.

But There Seem To Be Short-Term Impairments

So, in the medium to long term, your brain adapts to being a mother. But what about in the short term? Up to 80 percent of pregnant women have been found to say they have some kind of memory loss or other cognitive impairment during pregnancy—and who are we to argue with women who have actually been through it? There’s also the fact that a 2012 study showed that not only was there memory loss during pregnancy, but there also seemed to be a cumulative effect—the more pregnancies you had, the more your memory was impaired during pregnancy and for up to three months afterward.

Being A Parent Is Distracting

In addition to the science, all you need to do is spend a few hours with a toddler to experience how distracting being a parent can be. You leave tasks unfinished or you can’t remember the end of your sentence because you always have an eye elsewhere. Is part of “mommy brain” just dealing with real life? It may be the case, in one 2011 study on memory in pregnant versus non-pregnant women, one woman had to be excluded from the study because she brought her child with her.

But, as Elle notes, the study authors noticed that the women who brought her child had trouble focusing and didn’t even complete one of the tasks. Meanwhile, the pregnant women whose memory was being tested performed just as well as the non-pregnant women—except for when there were added distractions. It sounds like the focus on motherhood works as a kind of preoccupation, rendering you more vulnerable to distractions and the pressures of multitasking—which, of course, parenthood is full of. Is it any wonder you might feel a little all over the place?

It’s Not Empty Rhetoric

Even though the science is mixed and there does seem to be an indication that pregnancy and motherhood can affect your brain, we still need to be mindful of how we deploy the language. Though some women might find it easy to laugh it off or even enjoy using the term to explain little pregnancy quirks, it can have a more sinister effect.

A 2010 study found that pregnant women who were given messages and information about the negative effects of “mommy brain” and “baby brain” actually performed worse on cognitive tests and even rated themselves worse on self-reporting exercises. If you’re a pregnant woman who wants to joke about “mommy brain” that’s one thing, but it’s certainly not something we should be using to scare, warn, or patronize pregnant women.

If you find yourself dropping your cell phone into the washing machine, you can cut yourself a break. The science says a lot about how pregnancy affects our brain—but we shouldn’t underestimate just how cognitively monopolizing being a parent can be. You’re probably going to forget things and feel a little messy sometimes, but that’s OK. Being a mother does amazing things for your brain too—and those last a lot longer.

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