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Dealing with Pregnancy Brain

Pregnant woman thinking

Lucy Schaeffer

When Beverly Smolyansky was pregnant with her daughter, Sophia, she found herself struggling to recall basic words like pillowcase. She'd also have trouble completing simple tasks, such as matching socks while folding the laundry. A typical case of pregnancy brain? Yes -- except Smolyanksy's brain is nowhere close to typical: She has a Ph.D. in psychology and is the clinical director for the division of behavioral medicine and clinical psychology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, in Ohio, where she spends her days counseling kids.

Clearly, memory lapses can strike even the smartest women among us. "About 25 percent of my pregnant and post?partum patients mention feeling scattered; they'll walk into a room and forget what it is they came to get," says Melissa Dugan-Kim, M.D., clinical instructor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. It's talked about in popular culture, but physicians are taught little about why or how often it happens, she notes.

Sometimes, moms-to-be are told they're imagining the problem. But even if pregnancy brain were considered a valid medical condition, people could hold it against women, particularly at work. So what should you do if you feel as if you're suddenly losing your mind? Take comfort in knowing you're not alone -- and remember this sanity-sparing advice.

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Pregnancy brain is still a bit of a head-scratcher. A report in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology reviewed research on the phenomenon and noted that about 80 percent of pregnant women have memory impairment. However, studies failed to yield consistent results. A recent study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry found no significant cognitive differences in pregnant women, women who weren't pregnant, and women post-pregnancy. And the women in these tests didn't know they were under observation for memory problems -- so they didn't become forgetful as the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Pregnant women read about pregnancy brain in guidebooks, so they have a tendency to downgrade their own competence," notes study author Helen Christensen, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Mental Health Research at The Australian National University, in Canberra. "The idea of pregnancy brain makes them anxious; this might affect studies' results."

However, even if women's brain cells don't change drastically during pregnancy, there's good reason to feel scattered or absentminded. As exciting as pregnancy is, it can be a nerve-racking time -- and research reveals that short-term stress can affect memory. Moreover, you've got so many things to think about at once (doctor visits, stocking your nursery, and creating a birth plan, just to name a few), which is no easy feat for your noggin. "Studies show that the brain is actually incapable of processing two mental tasks at once," says productivity expert Julie Morgenstern, the author of Never Check E-Mail in the Morning. When you toggle back and forth between two tasks, it takes your brain four times longer to process what it's working on. "Something that would normally take just one tightly focused hour may take four," Morgenstern explains.

Hormones might also be working against you. During pregnancy, your levels of progesterone and estrogen -- both of which are linked to memory function -- shoot way up. At these high levels, they may negatively effect the ability to recall information, according to Abbe Macbeth, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health. "However, these hormones also cause the growth of new brain circuits that help mothers focus on the baby when she's born," says Louann Brizendine, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist and the author of The Female Brain. In other words, your brain is laying the groundwork for letting you tune in to your newborn's cries, for example. All of these shifting gears might make some women forgetful -- and unfortunately, the effect may endure even after your baby's arrival, fueled by other hormones that are produced during the breastfeeding process.

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As unnerving as suddenly experiencing Swiss-cheese brain can be, rest assured that your mind will eventually bounce back. For now, your best tactic is to avoid trying to do everything all at once. As you attempt to register for gifts, plan a babymoon, research strollers, and interview pediatricians and sitters, you'll feel a lot more clearheaded if you can focus on just one task at a time and let go of others. Write the important things down on paper and make it a priority to actually look at the list throughout the day. You might also try to prepare your to-do list the night before.

It's important to make taking care of yourself a priority: Get enough sleep and regular exercise. "When you don't sleep well, your thinking is impaired," Dr. Dugan-Kim says. So before bed, do something relaxing, such as meditating or reading a book, rather than doing work, checking Facebook, or catching up on e-mail. Exercise can also help you get better zzz's at night and focus during the day. In fact, a new study from the Institute for Memory Impairments and Neuro?biological Disorders at the University of California, Irvine, found that memory is sharpest right after a workout; if you exercise regularly, the cognitive benefits can be ongoing.

Finally, surround yourself with supportive people. In old times, pregnant women had an extended network of female kin who could pitch in. Even if you live far from your family, try not to go it alone; when you're overwhelmed by shopping for the nursery, rope in a friend to help you out -- or just call one to vent and help you see the humor in the situation. "Looking back, I laugh at that time I had a meltdown when I was trying to fold socks," Dr. Smolyansky says. Although she found her memory lapses scary at the time, knowing that other women had been through something similar was also reassuring. "I felt less crazy! My pregnancy brain, which I attributed to a lack of sleep, lasted a while after the birth of my daughter. But as she got older, I was once again able to add, remember things, find the right words... and fold socks!"

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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