Pregnancy brain: It's not all in your head

Pregnancy brain isn't imagined, and it's not just an excuse. It's proven—and fairly common.

Photo: Kristian Sekulic/iStockphoto

At six months pregnant, my sister Shayna lost her iPhone. Two days later, it was recovered—in the vegetable crisper drawer of her refrigerator. The culprit was clearly a wicked case of baby brain, before the baby had even arrived. If you’re expecting and you’ve noticed your mind has been mush lately, you’re not going nuts. All those stories you’ve heard from friends about “pregnancy brain” aren’t a load of hooey—there’s scientific evidence to support the theory that gestating a human not only wreaks havoc on your body, it also messes with your head.

“Forgetfulness or compromised memory during pregnancy, and the first few months postpartum, isn’t a myth,” confirms Michal Regev, a registered psychologist and family therapist in Vancouver. In 2007, Australian researchers compared the results of 14 studies done over 17 years and discovered that pregnant women are “significantly impaired on some measures of memory.”

Read more: 12 ways to beat a case of baby brain>

Suzanne Rappaport-Cho has a three-and a-half-year-old son and is expecting her second child in June. In addition to leaving her favourite coat on a recent flight and not remembering her tot’s show-and-tell day at school, the Toronto mom says this kind of behaviour is totally out of character for her. “I work in communications and events, and I’m a highly organized person,” she says. “But I have noticed the forgetfulness. ?This pregnancy I’m more flustered, too, possibly because I’m running after a preschooler.”

Mom of two Kelly Scott reports more than a few mental hiccups, including losing her train of thought mid-sentence, when she was expecting. “One summer morning, when I was pregnant with my son, I was heading to work and instead of saying ‘bye!’ to my husband, I yelled ‘Merry Christmas!’”

The most probable reason for why we’re so scatterbrained during these nine months is the hurricane of hormones. “Elevated levels of estrogen and progesterone may affect neural activity in the area of the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory,” Regev says. “The higher the levels of hormones in a woman’s body, the more likely it is for her hippocampus to be affected. And because estrogen and progesterone gradually increase throughout pregnancy until reaching a peak just before the birth, the third trimester is likely the most problematic for women with regards to memory.”

Besides hormones, the stress of becoming a parent and the fatigue associated with growing a baby can also be to blame—sleep deprivation is linked to poor cognitive functioning. “And sometimes,” says Regev, “forgetfulness has to do with poor mood or anxiety. Ten to 15 percent of pregnant and postpartum women develop these disorders, which often compromise memory.”

Read more: Pregnancy stress and your relationship>

Moms-to-be can keep their minds sharp by managing stress levels and catching enough zzzs (get the recommended eight hours, plus any catnaps you can squeeze in). If you experience what Regev calls recurrent sleep problems, heightened anxiety, long and uncontrollable crying spells, or compromised mood, it’s time to seek help from your prenatal caregiver.

If you’re a first-timer wondering whether it gets better postpartum, most of us can confirm that pregnancy brain in fact turns into mommy brain. One morning after a sleepless night with her first child, Scott tried to take off her mascara with nail polish remover. “I was so tired that I grabbed my nail polish remover instead of my eye makeup remover, put it on a cotton swab and stuck it on my eye.” Thankfully, she was OK—no harm done.

My sister invented some creative solutions to combat her forgetfulness. “I had to pay our proper tax bill and a parking ticket, so I rolled up the paperwork and put it in my bra. I knew I wouldn’t forget it—the edges of the paper kept poking me,” she says. She also used the elastic band trick: “Since I could never remember if I turned off? the stove before leaving the house, I’d put a rubber band around my wrist when I pressed the off button, so that I didn’t have to waste time going back home to check.

A version of this article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline “Forget it,” pp. 57.

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