Baby brain - is it real?
Forgetfulness and fuzziness can be part and parcel of your pregnancy and new mum experience, writes Arlene Harris
Anyone who has ever been pregnant will relate to the term 'baby brain' which denotes that period of your life when you seem to become forgetful and absent-minded for no apparent reason.
For years mothers have talked about this while many experts have said it is not a condition and is merely the body's response to the exhaustion associated with a succession of sleepless nights.
But an Australian study seems to back up the anecdotal evidence as researchers from Deakin University interviewed and assigned tasks to almost 1,500 women, some pregnant and others not pregnant. The research, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that memory and cognitive functioning were significantly reduced in pregnant women, particularly during the third trimester.
During these last few weeks, expectant mothers performed worse in areas such as planning, memory, decision making and attention span, compared to those who weren't pregnant.
And while not all mothers experience this reduction in 'sharpness' (which incidentally is restored within two years of giving birth), Alison Moloney from Dublin has first-hand experience.
"I am currently on a leave of absence from work but my job as an accountant requires a lot of concentration and the need to be quite organised," she says. "I have always been an orderly person with a place for everything and everything in its place, so when I was pregnant with my first child, I was surprised to discover that I was forgetting to do things on a regular basis.
"At first, I put it down to simply being preoccupied with winding up my job and preparing for the birth, but things got worse in the last few months, even though I had left work and spent most of my time at home. I would go out to the shops and forget what I needed to buy, I often went upstairs with no idea what I was actually looking for and, most embarrassingly, I missed several appointments with friends as I genuinely forgot I had arranged to meet them."
Alison, who is married to Tony, now has two children - Sarah (5) and Tom (3) - and is expecting her third, and says her initially worry about 'losing her mind' has eased as she experienced the same forgetfulness during and after the birth of her second child but, like the first time, returned to normal after a few months.
"I was worried during my first pregnancy as I actually thought I might have something seriously wrong with me," she admits. "I kept it to myself for a while as although I had heard of 'baby brain', I assumed it was just a joke. However, when I mentioned it to my midwife, she confirmed that this was most likely what I was suffering from and told me not to worry as my brain cells would recover in time.
"She was light-hearted and joking about the situation and this made me feel relaxed, particularly as when I confided in other friends, they had also experienced it. So instead of worrying, I just went with the flow and made sure to tell Tony my plans so he could remind me and also to write lists when I went shopping and keep a diary.
"There were of course days when I felt fuzzy and couldn't make my mind up over the smallest decision, but I didn't let it worry me and I think that was the best coping mechanism. It continued for several months after my daughter was born and I went through the same thing with my son and now again in the late stages of my third pregnancy, I am also a bit scatty - but it's a small price to pay."
Eimear South also experienced forgetfulness during her three pregnancies and says it became a bit tiresome when people constantly picked up on it. So she did some research and discovered that not only was it common, but totally normal.
"Throughout my pregnancies and in the post-partum period if I was to forget something, repeat myself or misplace something, it would naturally be followed by a comment like 'Ah you've got baby brain'," she recalls. "These remarks would come from well-meaning friends, colleagues or family members who felt the need to react to the situation by jumping on the bandwagon of an age-old cliché.
"But I discovered that 'baby brain' is real and in terms of neuroplasticity, the hormones which are involved in pregnancy and in the post-partum period allowed my maternal brain to be even more 'plastic'. So this meant that my brain had even more capacity than usual to remould and rewire to facilitate my own journey of evolution to becoming a mother. The last time my brain went through this rate of development would have been in my teenage years and before that would have been when I was a baby.
"So once I learnt this, my mind set changed from feeling slightly silly for forgetting someone's name or forgetting what I went upstairs to get, to then a feeling of bemusement, followed by a feeling of absolute awe of what my body and brain were capable of doing. So as well as investing in a wardrobe of maternity clothes, I should have also bought a bright yellow hat with a warning saying 'brain under construction' because there was some serious rewiring going on to prepare me for becoming a mother."
With this new information, the mother of three - Ava (6), Ben (4) and Joseph (2) - who is married to Bryan, decided to work with the changes in her body and mind and reap the benefits.
"Having researched what was going on, I fully took advantage of this nine-month window of neuroplasticity," says the Meath woman. "I practiced mindfulness meditation every single day as this has been shown to remould the brain when it comes to dealing with stress. I also practiced hypnosis every night as it is like 'powering down' while you do a software update. And I practiced mental imagery which allowed me to have a clear picture of how I'd feel during labour and birth.
"So I would advise any expectant mother out there who is experiencing 'baby brain' to embrace the transformation process and appreciate the wonder of what your body is capable of. Trust what it can do and create a filter for any comments that elicit a feeling of stress or uncertainty.
"And I do think the term baby brain has a negative connotation to it. Instead it is something which should be marvelled at."
Tracy Donegan, midwife and founder of gentlebirth.ie, says baby brain (or pregnancy brain as it is also sometimes called) is a term used to describe the neurological changes a new mother experiences so she will bond with her baby and protect her baby.
"Our brain evolved for survival so some of these processes were very helpful 100,000 years ago when we had to protect our newborn from wild animals - but obviously and thankfully some are less essential today," she explains.
"Every system of a woman's body goes through important changes in pregnancy and of course the brain does too and it is very 'plastic' - so the structure actually changes. All of the brain changes are adaptive - that is they happen for survival of the species and are not just a frustrating side effect of pregnancy.
"In fact, there are important changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion regulation, empathy-related regions and a part of the brain that is responsible for mothering behaviour; so as mums, we remain responsive to our newborn babies."
The experienced midwife says our brains change in order for us to fall in love with our babies and want to protect them.
"Most mums experience heightened anxiety when they become a mother for the first time, which makes absolute sense as your baby is helpless against 'predators'," she says.
"And of course a helpless infant needs a vigilant mum watching for danger. Although less researched, dads also experience brain changes but just not to the same level that mums do.
"And while these changes are all hormonal, there are things you can do to support your mental well-being and change your brain in a way which will help you to regulate your emotional state as a new mum; such as practicing meditation in pregnancy. This is associated with growth in the areas of the brain associated with positive mood, memory and decision-making and it reduces growth in the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety.
"So the next time you find your car keys in the fridge or forget what you went to the shop to get - give yourself a break. It does get better - and in the meantime, make lists if it's helpful and be gentle with yourself and your baby."