Today, Meredith Mitchell, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Riverside Women's Care, discusses whether there's any truth to the idea that having a baby means becoming more forgetful.
Question. Moments of forgetfulness happen to everyone, but is there any truth to what some call "pregnancy brain" or "mommy brain"? Can pregnancy, childbirth and parenting actually cause you to lose brain cells or make you more prone to forgetting things?
Answer. This is a great question that I get asked all the time by patients in my practice. Women often feel that they are not at their sharpest mentally during pregnancy and even after delivery. Many pregnancy guidebooks and websites have a section addressing perceived forgetfulness and concentration difficulties also known as "pregnancy brain" or "momnesia." But several scientific studies have shown inconclusive findings regarding this subject, so answering this question proves to be difficult.
An Australian researcher reviewed several studies that looked at objective tests of memory comparing pregnant and non-pregnant women. She concluded that pregnant women showed a statistically significant decrease in some measures of memory, specifically in executive cognitive control, which encompasses working memory, problem solving and reasoning. However, other measures of memory showed no difference. A British study conducted in 2010 showed a possible decrease in spatial memory, which is the ability to remember where objects are or how to get to new places. More recently, in another Australian study, cognitive ability was examined in 1,200 women for eight years. Measures of cognitive speed, working memory, and immediate and delayed recall for each woman were monitored before, during and after pregnancy. When the women's scores were compared to themselves at these different stages, no differences were noted.
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Despite what scientific studies show, about two-thirds of women feel that they have changes to their mentation during pregnancy. It is important to consider why many pregnant and post-partum women feel such a change in their memory and concentration.
The hormonal changes in pregnancy and while nursing are often blamed for moodiness but may also have an effect on memory and concentration. During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone levels are 15 to 40 times above normal levels. While this may affect the way the brain functions, it is unlikely that these hormones cause women to lose brain cells.
The excitement of planning for and caring for a new baby can also take focus away from other tasks. Pregnant and nursing women get dehydrated more easily, which can effect mental function. Most importantly, sleep plays a huge role. It has been proven in many studies that fatigue significantly worsens memory and concentration. Even before caring for a newborn, many pregnant women do not get enough sleep.
Knowing that your body and mind go through significant changes during pregnancy and postpartum period, you can take steps to combat the frustration of memory and concentration changes. Make lists of tasks that you need to get done and questions for your doctor. Give yourself extra time to get ready in the morning. Drink at least 64 ounces of non-caffeinated fluid a day. Most importantly, try to get at least eight hours of sleep at night (or as much as you can with a newborn). If, despite doing all of these things, you still feel a significant difference in your memory, please discuss it with your doctor.
Follow reporter Rachel Damgen at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.