Is "Mommy Brain" Real?

Is "Mommy Brain" Real?

In a word, “yes.” Now what were we talking about?

By Liz Krieger

Ask yourself: since your baby was born, have you ever done any of the following: Looked for your glasses and found them atop your head? Walked into a room and questioned why the heck you even went there? Struggled to find a basic word to describe something? Been asked for your own birthdate and legit took more than three seconds to remember it? Good news—you’re not losing your mind. You just may be in the midst of a little something called “mom brain.”

Simply put: our brains probably do have a limit on resources during times of stress, sleep deprivation, or change—and in those times, the most important things stick around. So taking the best possible care of your baby is your brain’s top job right now, while where you left your car keys just isn’t as vital. (And we’ve got help on that front.)

What’s happening

In 2016, European researchers found that first-time mothers had decreased gray matter in the cerebral cortexes of their brains and those changes last for at least two years. In fact, the changes were so clear and consistent that researchers could tell if a woman had recently had a child simply by looking at her brain scans. If finding the right word seems to be a particularly vexing problem for you, that’s also not surprising—a study from 2010 showed that women’s “verbal recall memory” diminishes during pregnancy. Concentration and short-term memory are two other areas that may be particularly affected. One study that tested a group of highly-educated pregnant women found that all of the subjects had decreased abilities in those two areas. So what’s actually happening? 

But there are some major evolutionary upsides to these brain changes. While your new-mom brain may be faltering on the name of that random TV star, some areas of the brain seem to light up when mothers look at their babies (the midbrain and the prefrontal cortex, to be specific), suggesting that this is to promote mother-baby bonding as well as important decision-making.

What to do

Before you get frustrated that you’ll never be your old whip-smart self again, know that there are ways to handle this new normal. Sure, laughing about it helps, but beyond that, try the following:

Give your brain a hand. Try new tricks to keep from forgetting tasks, names, and dates. Leave yourself voicemails, set alarms for even the most seemingly minor of things, and keep a pen and paper at hand so you make sure you write something down the second it comes to mind. (By just a few minutes later, it may have gone POOF!)

Develop a routine. When you have a plan for the day, it gives you some structure and predictability. It also frees up your brain to think about other things rather than mentally trying to plan your day. Just don't force yourself to follow it to the letter so you can stay flexible if your or the baby's needs change. Having a rough routine each day will give your brain a break and help curb some of the brain fog.

Ask for help. Involve your partner as much as you can—with both the physical tasks of parenting as well as the significant (and oft-overlooked) “invisible,” mental load—i.e., the making of doc appointments, buying new baby clothes when they get outgrown, and researching sleep training techniques. If family or close friends live nearby, you can ask for their help, especially if you feel like you need a break. Most people are more than willing to stop by for an hour or two and hold the baby while you take a much-needed power nap. You will be surprised how a little extra sleep can improve your memory and make you more alert.

Try to sneak in more sleep. Yeah, we know, this one’s a bit of a groaner, because it’s so obvious and yet can feel so impossible at times. Your brain needs rest in order to process all the new information it has taken in throughout the day. If you have a willing partner, take turns with the overnight wake-ups or feedings. Shift work can get you a few bonus hours of sleep that make a big difference in how you feel.

Eat smart. Certain foods can support both short- and long-term brain function. One to add to your plate is fatty fish, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as tuna or salmon. A study found that people with high levels of omega-3s had increased blood flow in the brain. Both dark chocolate and most berries (think blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries) are high in antioxidants and flavonoids that are important to brain health. Eating more nuts and seeds may also be good for the brain, as these foods contain both omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Finally, go ahead and try that trendy turmeric latte you’ve seen on social— this yellow spice has powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant.

Play games. Give your brain a bit of easy exercise. You could do crossword puzzles, play a game like Words with Friends on your phone, or do quick brain-training games online.

Rather than getting frustrated with yourself when you forget something, try to remember that your brain literally remapped itself to make you a better mom, and that’s a pretty incredible thing.