WebMD Health - Pregnancy

Oct 19, 2011 7:05 PM

Pregnancy Brain: Myth or Reality?

Nipping Pregnancy Brain in the Bud

Bena Blakeslee, a mother of two in Westchester, N.Y., remembers her brush with "pregnancy brain."

At an airport while pregnant, she frantically paced a parking lot, searching for her Jeep. After an hour, she called her husband to tell him that their car had been stolen. But then she realized that she had just gone to the wrong parking lot.

That wasn't her only memory glitch. "I also went to the wrong airport twice on the same trip, and another time, I was sitting at the wrong gate and completely missed my flight," Blakeslee says.

Many pregnant women and mothers can relate. Those bouts of forgetfulness go by many names, including:

  • pregnancy brain
  • mommy brain
  • pregnancy amnesia
  • momnesia

But a recent study questions whether pregnancy brain exists. Who is right -- the moms or the researchers? And how can you handle fuzzy memory during pregnancy? Here are answers.

Pregnancy Brain Is Real

"If you read pregnancy manuals and listen to pregnant mothers - yes, there is such a thing as pregnancy brain or momnesia, and there is also evidence from research showing deficits in memory," says Helen Christensen, PhD, of The Australian National University.

But "the evidence from our study shows that the capacity of the brain is unaltered in pregnancy," Christensen tells WebMD in an email.

That is, a pregnant woman's brain is unchanged, though she may not be as razor sharp as she once was.

Reasons for Pregnancy Brain

Blakeslee's forgetfulness is understandable. Like many moms, her life swirls like a tornado. She constantly handles the needs and wants of her two young kids, a torrent of other household tasks and chores -- and she rarely, if ever, gets a good night's sleep.

Under these circumstances, it is 100% normal to have memory lapses or be forgetful, Christenson says.

Jane Martin, assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Neuropsychological Testing and Evaluation Center at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, agrees.

"When you are not getting enough sleep and are multitasking, nobody's memory is good," Martin says. "You are not cognitively sharp when you haven't slept well."

Hormones and Pregnancy Brain

Surging hormone levels and new priorities may explain why pregnancy brain happens.

"There are 15 to 40 times more progesterone and estrogen marinating the brain during pregnancy, and these hormones affect all kinds of neurons in the brain," says Louann Brizendine, MD, director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco and author of several books, including the Male Brain.

"By the time the woman delivers, there are huge surges of oxytocin that cause the uterus to contract and the body to produce milk -- and they also affect the brain circuits."

And pregnancy also shuffles what gets your attention. "You only have so many shelves in your brain so the top three are filled with baby stuff," Brizendine says.

Your IQ doesn't change, but your priorities sure do.

Hormones may also affect spatial memory -- which includes remembering where things are -- in pregnant women and new moms, a recent British study shows.

What Pregnancy Brain Feels Like

Pregnancy brain is "the feeling of walking into a room, going after something, and not remembering what you went for about five to 10 times a day," Brizendine says.

"Pregnancy brain is about forgetting where you put your keys or forgetting three of 27 items in the grocery store," says Donnica Moore, MD, a women's health expert based in Far Hills, N.J.

There may also be an evolutionary aspect to pregnancy brain, Moore says. "It has been postulated that from an evolutionary standpoint this memory impairment may be helpful so that women will forget about other stuff and focus on caring for the child."

Put another way: Having pregnancy (and babyhood) on the brain can result in pregnancy brain. Many pregnant women and new moms spend a lot of time thinking about the changes that having a baby will bring or taking care of their newborn and as a result, their short-term memory may suffer.

Lessons From Pregnancy Brain

Pregnancy brain "should serve as your first tip-off that when you are preparing to have a baby, you need to simplify other areas of your life, because life is about to get a lot more complicated," Moore says.

When pregnancy brain continues after childbirth (and it often does), sleep deprivation is clearly a contributing factor. "Women accumulate up to 700 hours of sleep debt in the first year after having a baby, and that causes the brain not to be at its best for things other than caring for the baby," Brizendine says.

Nipping Pregnancy Brain in the Bud

Pregnancy brain can often be offset by these two steps:

Write things down. Whether it's a grocery list or a list of questions to ask your obstetrician, jotting it down helps.

"Most patients comment, 'I have to write my questions down or I will forget,' and then mention that they are more forgetful in general," says Geeta Sharma, MD, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center "Make lists, use a day planner, and keep your sense of humor," Moore says.

Get more sleep. This may be tricky for new parents. But it can boost short-term memory. "Most moms need more deep sleep and within a week of getting better sleep, some of this momnesia stuff goes away," Brizendine says.

Is It More Than Pregnancy Brain?

Momnesia usually isn't cause for concern. But not all memory lapses are harmless.

"I forget everything now," says Robin, a mother of two in New Rochelle, N.Y., who asked that her last name be withheld because she's embarrassed by her pregnancy brain problems. "I get in the shower and after 10 minutes, I forget if I washed my hair or not, and I only shave one leg sometimes. I first noticed it during my second pregnancy and it has gotten worse. It definitely may be related to sleep deprivation and the constant demands of motherhood, but I also fear that it could be early-onset Alzheimer's."

Fear not, Brizendine says. "This type of memory loss or mental slippage is totally normal and not likely to be a sign of anything more serious than sleep deprivation," she says.

Brizendine's rule of thumb: "If your memory problems are getting in the way of taking safety precautions or if you find yourself doing things like forgetting to put your child in the car seat, worry. Otherwise, it's normal."

Martin agrees. "Forgetting where you park your car in a multilevel mall parking lot or whether you shampooed your hair can happen, and these are not signs of a true memory disorder," she says.

But if you forget something like how to drive a car, or how to get to your longtime favorite mall, consult a doctor.