Explaining the "Mommy Brain" Phenomenon

Many pregnant people experience forgetfulness and brain fog, but is "pregnancy brain" real? Here's everything you need to know about this bizarre phenomenon.

Mommy Brain illustration
Illustration by Ana Celaya.

You may have heard terms like "mommy brain," "pregnancy brain," or "baby brain" to describe how new and expecting parents can experience things like forgetfulness. The truth is, "mommy brain" can be real, but probably not in the ways you think.

Pregnancy changes you, physically and emotionally. You might expect sore breasts, a burgeoning baby bump, moodiness, and fatigue—but did you know pregnancy can also change the way you think? Indeed, some pregnant people develop forgetfulness or brain fog, characterized by memory problems, poor concentration, and absent-mindedness, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But what really causes this "pregnancy brain," and when does it go away? Here's everything you need to know about this strange but seemingly common symptom.

What Is 'Mommy Brain'?

"Mommy brain," "pregnancy brain," and "baby brain" are non-medical terms used to describe many cognitive changes pregnant people face. For some, these changes present as forgetfulness or memory loss. For others, it's a haziness or brain fog.

Note that these terms are outdated, discriminatory, and judgmental—even when used in a joking manner. The terms add to the preconception that pregnancy makes someone less capable, and we should stop using them around pregnant people whether they're family members, friends, co-workers, or strangers.

Is 'Pregnancy Brain' Real?

Many have wondered if "pregnancy brain" is real: Does the brain actually change during pregnancy? The truth is that no one knows. Some studies have suggested the brains of pregnant people shrink. Others disagree, noting pregnancy does not change the organ's shape or structure. And still other studies have offered evidence of gray matter reduction, which could affect cognitive function.

The Mayo Clinic discusses a review of 20 studies, which involved more than 700 pregnant people and 500 non-pregnant people. It found pregnant people displayed poorer cognitive functioning, as well as memory and executive functioning—but these changes don't affect factors like job performance. Also, they were only noticeable by close relationships and the pregnant person themselves.

Potential Causes of 'Mommy Brain'

But while experts disagree about the validity of "pregnancy brain," other symptoms of pregnancy (and the postpartum period) may account for brain fog and memory loss such as hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, and stress.

Hormonal changes

Your hormone levels change during pregnancy. And some doctors believe spikes in certain hormones, such as progesterone, could affect your ability to think clearly. According to a February 2014 study, published in Brain and Cognition, people in their second trimester (and beyond) performed lower than non-pregnant people on spatial recognition memory (SRM) tests. This is when hormone levels tend to be high.

Sleep deprivation

Sleep is essential for pregnant and non-pregnant people. However, many expecting parents experience insomnia, which can impact their ability to focus. Sleep deprivation can also result in forgetfulness and memory loss.

Anxiety and stress

Like sleep, stress can impact you (and your body) in a host of ways. For example, it can cause muscle tension, pain, and high blood pressure. But did you know stress can affect your mind? Several studies have linked anxiety and stress to memory loss.

How Long Does 'Pregnancy Brain' Last?

While many assume the symptoms of "pregnancy brain" ease or lift after birth, some studies suggest this phenomena may continue for years. According to a December 2016 study published in Nature Neuroscience, "pregnancy brain" can persist for at least two years after birth.

How to Manage 'Pregnancy Brain' Symptoms

Looking for the best ways to manage "pregnancy brain" symptoms? For starters, you should eat well and get plenty of sleep. If insomnia is a problem, try taking short but frequent naps. Make sure you drink plenty of water. Even mild dehydration can have adverse effects, impairing your ability to focus and zapping your energy.

You may also want to play brain-boosting games. Crosswords and Sudoku are two great options. Also, if forgetfulness is a problem, set alarms or reminders for completing certain tasks, like changing the laundry or picking up older kids from school. Most watches and phones have calendars, which let you add events or set up notifications.

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