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Pregnancy Brain: Is It Real Or Just A Myth? 2023
Pregnancy brain. Baby brain. Momnesia. There are a ton of ways to refer to one thing many mothers-to-be have in common—brain fog and forgetfulness, which are both completely normal during pregnancy and even during the postpartum period.
Is cognitive change in pregnant women a myth? The phenomenon might have some scientific merit. The human brain structure and many hormonal changes associated with the maternal brain may all impact your working memory and general functionality greatly.
Here’s what you need to watch out for if you’re pregnant – and a few lifestyle factors that can help you overcome this minor inconvenience while carrying your child.
What Is Pregnancy Brain?
The pregnancy brain is an amalgamation of cognitive symptoms associated with pregnant and postpartum women.
In a general sense, it’s regarded as a disruption in cognitive function and executive functioning. Some of the most well-known changes in a woman’s brain during pregnancy include
- Forgetfulness and absent-mindedness
- Memory lapses and disturbances are primarily due to sleep issues
- Problems falling and staying asleep
- Poor concentration
- Poor cognitive performance in some cases
- Reading comprehension issues
- Mood swings
- A reduction in spatial cognition
With any luck, your partner and the rest of your family will be able to soothe you as you navigate this period of fogginess and forgetfulness—it’s a completely normal part of being pregnant, and there’s little evidence that a pregnancy experience like this leads to long-lasting cognitive impairment after birth.
When Does Pregnancy Brain Start?
In many cases, these cognitive changes reach an apex in the third trimester, but you may experience mood swings, insomnia, and other brain changes as soon as the first trimester of your pregnancy.
In the majority of cases, women’s brains recover fully from pregnancy brain within six months after delivering the child. After this time, non-pregnant women should be back in action, their brain functions performing at levels akin to their cognitive functions previously.
Is Pregnancy Brain Real?
Cognitive impairment and other changes in human brain activity during pregnancy are usually simply attributed to hormones—adjustments in estradiol (E2), progesterone (P), testosterone (T), cortisol (CORT), and prolactin (PRL) as pregnancy progress can all leave you in a tizzy, but these aren’t the only factors at play here.
This study invited a cohort of 55 pregnant women to partake in a series of cognitive tests and repeated stress exercises in order to determine how they would perform against a smaller group of non-pregnant control participants. The group at its helm found that, unsurprisingly, the hormone levels between pregnancy and non-pregnancy did, in fact, vary significantly.
It also showed some variance in executive function, spatial recognition memory, short-term memory problems, and other issues. Sleep deprivation was detected as a contributing factor to some extent, but not to the extent that was expected.
Is pregnancy brain real? These results are compelling, but even more persuasive are the millions of colloquial accounts from real women carrying their children.
What Causes Pregnancy Brain?
“Mommy brain” finds its root largely in your hormonal state, but there are tons of other factors to consider, as well. Motherhood and pregnancy lead to a long night awake without enough sleep—this, alone, would be more than enough to diminish one’s neuropsychological functioning, and it’s considered to be one of the major problems at play in this area.
Combined, all of these factors culminate into a potent cocktail of memory loss, poor social cognition, and decreased spatial memory, among the other pregnancy brain symptoms mentioned above.
With that being said, though, these brain changes in the maternal hippocampus aren’t yet considered to be intrinsic or physical. Rather, at this time, it’s believed that it’s simply a psychological response to the duress of pregnancy, especially in the third trimester and after giving birth.
Mixed results, such as those found in this study, indicate that the actual underlying architecture of the brain structure and its operation do not vary significantly between pregnant and non-pregnant women. That means you can live worry-free, knowing that pregnancy is not likely to incur any lasting changes in human cognition.
In short: your gray matter isn’t becoming damaged and less effective. After your baby’s arrival, your hormone levels will regulate themselves and you should start to regain your formerly-normal brain function. Stress and anxiety are more than normal during this time—if you’re a worrier by nature, you may find yourself more at risk of these feelings before giving birth (and even for some time after).
How To Treat Pregnancy Brain
What’s the best way to help yourself through this period of sleep deprivation and hormonal imbalance? Self-care is one extremely important coping mechanism. There’s a lot you can do to help keep yourself calm throughout the entirety of your pregnancy.
These are some of the best ways to help with pregnancy brain. You’ve likely got everything you need for many of them in your home right now:
- Sleep well: A good night’s sleep can help cure what ails you—it can help you reduce your pregnancy brain symptoms, and it can also help you begin each day refreshed and in a great mood.
- Nourish yourself: If a healthy diet isn’t anything you devote time and effort to, there is no better time to start taking an interest in your daily nutrition. Cook often, meal prep, and always have a stash of healthy snacks and small meals on-hand for easy access. When you’re always well-fed, you’ll be in a much better mood. You’ll also be giving your body everything it needs to continue functioning in support of your unborn child.
- Stay hydrated: Can drinking water improve brain function? It can, and it even might be able to help elevate your mood, believe it or not. It’s easy to become dehydrated, especially in your forgetful state, and without the water, it needs to operate, our brains become frazzled, unfocused, and often distraught. Always have a healthy-sized pitcher of filtered water ready to decant. If you always have a glass at your side, remembering to sip is much easier. Add cucumber or lemon for an extra kick.
- Try to stay productive: if it’s still early in your pregnancy, light organizing and housework can help you distract yourself from feelings of uneasiness and forgetfulness.
- Stick to a healthy routine: Sometimes, planning your days in the morning or the evening can help you stay focused and on-task throughout the day. You might also be able to pin important reminders on your calendar or in your planner, which will aid you if you find your memory compromised.
- Try cognitive activities and games: Fun, brain-boosting activities like sudoku and crossword puzzles can help you stay sharp, even in your downtime. If you love video games, you might consider picking up a new puzzler. Anything that keeps your mind moving is a great way to stay alert and at the top of your game.
All of the above should sound pretty familiar—your body is your child’s vessel, and when you’re able to keep the soil fertile, they’re more likely to develop well and right on schedule.
The Bottom Line
Pregnancy and childbirth are not easy—you might end up at your wit’s end spiritually, emotionally, and in terms of energy while in the midst of it. We’re here to assure you that these pregnancy side effects are temporary and will likely wane in the months after delivering your baby.
Try these pregnancy tips out for yourself. With any luck, you’ll be back to your old self in no time.
+ 5 sources
Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here
- Casey, P., Huntsdale, C., Angus, G., & Janes, C. (1999). Memory in pregnancy. II: Implicit, incidental, explicit, semantic, short-term, working and prospective memory in primigravid, multigravid and postpartum women. Journal of psychosomatic obstetrics and gynaecology, 20(3), 158–164. https://doi.org/10.3109/01674829909075590
- Parsons, C., & Redman, S. (1991). Self-reported cognitive change during pregnancy. The Australian journal of advanced nursing : a quarterly publication of the Royal Australian Nursing Federation, 9(1), 20–29.
- Henry, J. F., & Sherwin, B. B. (2012). Hormones and cognitive functioning during late pregnancy and postpartum: a longitudinal study. Behavioral neuroscience, 126(1), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025540
Dustin M. Logan, Kyle R. Hill, Rochelle Jones, Julianne Holt-Lunstad & Michael J. Larson (2014) How do memory and attention change with pregnancy and childbirth? A controlled longitudinal examination of neuropsychological functioning in pregnant and postpartum women, Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 36:5, 528-539, DOI: 10.1080/13803395.2014.912614
- Zhang, N., Du, S. M., Zhang, J. F., & Ma, G. S. (2019). Effects of Dehydration and Rehydration on Cognitive Performance and Mood among Male College Students in Cangzhou, China: A Self-Controlled Trial. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(11), 1891. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph16111891