Decoding mystery of baby brain
Baby brain might be a source of hilarity for many, but there is evidence that it is an actual physical condition, and may even serve a useful purpose for new mothers.
So there I was, wearily unpacking my bag after a trip to Italy, when I came across a pack of tampons nestling in the corner of my suitcase. Not exactly a surprising find in a woman's case – except that I was six months pregnant.
But that's not all. My tampon mishap was just the latest in a long line of what I could only call brain failures. At last count I have driven off three times with things left on the roof of my car. And while on holidays I inexplicably forgot that you have to flush the toilet after using it.
Posting the 'd'oh' moments on Facebook brought me plenty of ridicule, but also a lot of sympathy from fellow mums and mums-to-be – because it seems that I'm not alone.
A straw poll revealed that baby brain, or mumnesia, is a common phenomenon among expectant and new mums, and it seems that science is backing us up.
Although researchers have generally been split on the question of whether baby brain is an actual physical condition or not, a 2008 project by the University of New South Wales and Australian Catholic University, which brought together the data from 14 separate studies, concluded that up to 80pc of mothers believed they suffered from baby brain during pregnancy and their child's first year.
Dr Marilyn Glenville, a specialist in natural health for women in all stages of their life, also believes that baby brain exists.
"I have come across it, and I've even experienced it myself. I know some people say there's no evidence there, but I think there can be. And I think it can be more pronounced in women who work, work right up to the birth or have to go back to work immediately afterwards. They can notice the change a lot more if their daily job might require a lot of thought and concentration."
Celebrities seem to back up Dr Glenville's theory. "I have to confess I really did suffer this thing of pregnancy dementia, and I have not really got my brain back," said actress Kate Winslet shortly after the birth of her first child.
"It's really scary arriving at work and thinking: 'Bloody hell, where have these lines gone?'"
And mum-of-two Myleene Klass once claimed she "couldn't remember the way home, let alone a sonata".
We're guessing Myleene isn't referring to 'Twinkle, Twinkle', there!
So if it exists, what exactly causes baby brain?
"There are theories around it, but the strong level of the female hormones around that time has an effect on brain function," says Dr Glenville.
"Some studies have suggested that it could be an evolutionary advantage, that it's the body's way of turning focus away from the outside, so the baby gets more attention. Maybe it's to keep people focused on the task ahead, and protect from outside worries."
Other studies have suggested that baby brain might actually boost certain parts of the brain – at the possible expense of others. Studies on animals including rats and primates found mothers become much braver, and are up to five times faster at finding food than those without offspring.
In another 2008 study, Dr Craig Kinsley of Richmond University in Virginia concluded that birth actually increases brainpower to equip women for the challenge of rearing their child: "While a woman may experience an apparent loss of brain function while she is pregnant, this could be because parts of her brain are being remodelled in preparation for dealing with the complicated demands of child-rearing."
Dr Glenville believes that baby brain can start early in the pregnancy, but the reason for it might be as simple as the body redistributing energy to the baby. "The highest level of cell division is at the beginning of the pregnancy, and that's when the woman feels more tired – and they can be exhausted.
"I've had women in the clinic who would get home from work at 6pm, fall into the bed and sleep right through until the morning.
"Even though the pregnancy isn't visible, a lot of energy is required for the level of cell division that happens up until 12 weeks. The brain requires a lot of energy to function and focus, so maybe some of the energy needed for the cell division could be taken away from the brain, and sometimes it's easier for the body to shut off and go to sleep to concentrate on the baby."
It's logical, then, that pregnancy and the days after giving birth are the times to be boosting your brainpower.
The best way to do this, says Dr Glenville, is through nutrition. "Eating well is extremely important all the way through the pregnancy. The brain needs glucose, but it shouldn't come in the form of refined sugar. Instead think low-GI, so the brain is getting good levels of energy throughout the day.
"Eating little and often and enjoying good-quality food are important strategies. Antioxidant levels are also important – think about brightly-coloured veg and eating a rainbow of colours, as this will increase the range of antioxidants you're taking in.
"One of the most important things to have in your diet is Omega-3 oils. This is where the bulk of research is going in to, in terms of brain function and disorders like dementia and so on. We also know that in the third trimester of pregnancy, the baby's brain and eye function is developing, so the Omega-3 taken in by the mother is also working on that."
It can take some time for your body to get back to normal physically after having a baby, but it's even more important to acknowledge that baby brain may be a natural reaction to an especially busy and stressful time.
"It's vital to acknowledge that babies are not all plain sailing," says Dr Glenville.
"It is a tough time, not least because this generation mainly grew up outside the extended family unit and therefore not looking after children – for me, I had not changed a nappy before I had a baby.
"We've lost that support and help that previous generations used to have when raising children, and women are now trying to do everything on their own – and then they might be going back to work, as well."
With all this talk of baby brain, preg brain and 'mumnesia', it's easy to dismiss the issue as a bit of a laughing matter, but what if it's symptomatic of something a bit more serious? Or worse, endangers either you or your baby?
I may have left shopping bags on the roof of my car, but what if I left the baby?
"It can be quite scary for women if they think it's permanent, but I know from myself and from others that it passes," says Dr Glenville. "We need to be kind to ourselves and make allowances. Write things down, double-check that you've done everything you have to, make life easy for yourself and remember that it will change over time.
"Use the tools that we all have to make remembering things easier – and don't feel guilty about it. Fighting against it isn't helpful, and it may make recovery even longer, because when you add stress into the mix, it's going to make symptoms worse. Instead focus on the things that we can do until our bodies get back to normal, as they will do."
If you really are worried about your memory loss or if it's accompanied by disturbing thoughts, it is important to get some help. "The message is to go with the flow unless it's becoming a concern for you or is accompanied by low moods or feelings of depression. If you feel that it could be more than the baby blues, it's important to reach out and get help."
Thankfully my own case of baby brain is limited to putting the remote control in the fridge instead of the milk – but at least I am now successfully flushing the toilet. Progress, at last . . .
For more on Dr Marilyn Glenville and her clinics in Ireland, log on to www.marilynglenville.com
Health & Living