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 postpartum 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. So what if you feel as if you're losing your mind? Know that you're not alone -- and remember this sanity-sparing advice.
Why It Happens
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. But studies have not yielded consistent results. A recent one published in The British Journal of Psychiatry found no significant cognitive differences among pregnant women, women who weren't pregnant, and women post-pregnancy, none of whom knew they were being observed for memory issues.
But 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 nerve-racking -- and research reveals that short-term stress can affect memory. And you've got so many things to think about (doctor visits, stocking your nursery, creating a birth plan...). It's no easy feat for your noggin. "Studies show that the brain is 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 things, it takes your brain four times longer than normal to process what it's working on. "Something that would usually take just one tightly focused hour may take four," Morgenstern says.
Hormones might also be working against you. During pregnancy, your levels of progesterone and estrogen shoot up, and both are linked to memory. At these high levels, they may negatively affect 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 helping you tune in to your newborn's cries, for example. This gear-shifting might make some women forgetful, and the effect may endure after your baby's arrival, fueled by other hormones produced during breastfeeding.
Getting Through It
Rest assured that your gray matter will eventually be restored. For now, your best tactic is to focus on one thing at a time. Jot the day's two or three most important to-do's on paper, or put them in your phone and look at the list throughout the day. And take care of you! Get enough sleep and regular exercise. "When you don't sleep well, your thinking is impaired," Dr. Dugan-Kim says. So enjoy a relaxing pursuit before bed, such as meditating or reading a book, rather than catching up on email. Exercise can also help you get better zzz's at night and stay focused during the day. In fact, a study by the Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurobiological Disorders at the University of California, Irvine, found that memory is sharpest after a workout; if you exercise regularly, the cognitive benefits can be ongoing.
Finally, surround yourself with a team. At one time, moms-to-be relied on an extended network of female kin to pitch in. Even if you live far from family, don't go it alone; when you're overwhelmed, call a friend to help you out -- or just commiserate. "Looking back, I laugh at the meltdown I had when I was folding socks," Dr. Smolyansky says. Although she found her memory lapses scary at the time, knowing that other women had been through a similar experience was reassuring. "I felt less crazy! My pregnancy brain lasted a while after my daughter's birth. But as she got older, I was once again able to remember things, find the right words...and fold socks!"
Scratch These Concerns off Your Worry List!
Facebook fans let you know what they so wish they hadn't fixated on.
Baby's size: "My son measured big, so I thought delivery would be terrible. But everything went great!" - Danielle McClain
A C-section: "It happened, and there was nothing I could do about it!" - Olivia Rae Hilliker
Going it alone: "As a single mother, I wish I'd worried less about whether I could do this. My son is 7 weeks old, and I'm exhausted, but I can do this alone!" - Wendy Llewellyn
The baby room: "I was obsessive about what bedding to get. My daughter is 7 months old and has yet to sleep in her own crib!" - Amanda Gelina Poling
Nursing: "I worried I wouldn't be able to. I had recurring dreams that the nurses gave my son a bottle without my consent! Now he's 15 months old and still nursing!" - Nicki Prosser
What to pack: "I brought a huge duffel to the hospital and only opened it to get my toothbrush and a comb." - Jenny Lai
My birth plan: "My son is here, and we are both healthy. That's what matters!" - Victoria Holdsworth
Originally published in American Baby magazine in 2011. Updated in 2014.
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