Pregnancy Brain:  Is It Real?

Pregnancy Brain: Is It Real?

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Is “pregnancy brain” a real phenomenon?

As I enter my 24th week of pregnancy I have found myself being unusually forgetful, feeling more mentally foggy, and even using the wrong words in conversation. More then a few times in recent days I have felt like I might even be losing my mind.

Over the years I have had many friends joke about having so-called “pregnancy brain.” But like many other things people say about becoming a Mom, I thought it was just a pregnancy myth or an excuse for lazy thinking.

The curse of the pregnancy brain

Here are a few examples of my experience recently with what I assume has to be pregnancy brain:

Two nights ago, a physician at a vendor dinner program asked me the names of some of the physicians that I work with in our emergency department. Suddenly, my mind couldn’t recall the names of anyone I work with. Literally, not one single person! Mind you, I have been working in the ER at my hospital for 9 months and know the entire department by name very well. My brain just froze.

At work recently, I was trying to think of the gelatinous, clear, rubbery food we often give patients in the hospital to eat while they are on a clear liquid diet. 10 minutes later it came to me. Jell-O. Duh!

While shopping for groceries I referred to blueberries as strawberries. Then at home I referred to our tile as carpet. Then, at lunch with friends a few days ago I stated that Zoe was going to have a little sister soon, but I’m having a boy! And it still took me a few seconds to realize it and correct myself.

Pregnancy brain has affected my writing as well. I will come up with an amazing idea that I would love to research and write about. Then when I finally sit down to organize my thoughts I can’t think of what I wanted to say. It is so annoying!

Brain changes during pregnancy

Neurons in the brain

Neurons in the brain. Pregnancy doesn’t “shrink” the brain, but it does temporarily restructure it a bit. Why? Studies say it’s nature’s way of helping us adjust to motherhood and protect our babies.

A 2016 study in Nature Neuroscience showed that pregnancy causes substantial changes in brain structure. The primary changes included “reductions in grey matter volume in regions subserving social cognition.”

(For those who don’t know, grey matter is the “thinking” part of the brain, and a major component of the central nervous system. It is where our intelligence lives.)

The study found that pregnancy causes new mothers’ brains to be more efficiently wired in areas that allow them, for example, to respond to their infant’s needs or be more alert to dangers in their infants’ environment. In other words, the brain doesn’t actually “shrink,” it just restructures it self a bit.

Essentially, the loss in grey matter in the mother was due to those same brain regions responding to their babies post birth. In fact, a few studies I read stated that the loss in grey matter was directly correlated to the mothers’ attachment to her child postpartum.

At first read, it appeared as if mother nature was temporarily lowering my IQ a bit in order to help me be more attentive to my babies’ needs after they arrive.  Awesome!

Joking aside, at least I have an explanation for my mental fogginess and word confusion. I am actually kind of relieved that I’m not just losing my mind!

Pregnancy brain may actually be a good thing

The same study also found that the grey matter changes actually predicted how maternally attached we are to our babies’ after birth. This was thought to be nature’s way of transitioning mothers into the ginormous changes that come with being a new mom.

This actually makes sense to me. Anyone who has been a mother knows that the life changes that come with a baby are huge. At least for a good while.

There is some good news though. They found that the grey matter reductions lasted for two years after birth. So I won’t have permanent brain damage after all. Phew!

Additional benefits to pregnancy brain

Baby Zoe and Mom

Studies are showing that maternal brain changes last two years post birth.

Laura Glynn, a professor and chair of the department of psychology at Chapman University, stated that not only does pregnancy brain exist, but there are important benefits to a vulnerable infant. For example, pregnant women are “better at recognizing fear, anger and disgust” which may aid mothers in using their emotions to ensure their infant’s survival.

In addition, Glynn stated that the pregnancy hormones estrogen and oxytocin are associated with heightened maternal responsiveness and sensitivity to the environment and infants’ needs.

There are several articles connecting pregnancy brain with gaining additional ability to be a better mother. In fact, the more I read about pregnancy brain the more I think it may not be such a negative thing after all. If it can help me be a better mother, especially in those first few crazy, sleep deprived months, perhaps I can even accept it as a blessing and not a curse.

Managing pregnancy brain

I now know that there are actual benefits to pregnancy brain. But I still need to continue my job as responsible mother of a toddler and ER nurse, and be a functional human being. So what do I do in the meantime? To be frank, the idea of pregnancy brain does seem a little depressing. It makes me feel more tired and less productive, and it doesn’t fit my active personality which really annoys the crap out of me.

Here are a few ideas I am working on that may help with pregnancy brain:

1.  Exercise regularly

Pregnant woman doing yoga.

Evidence shows that women who exercise during pregnancy have smarter babies.

The research on the positive benefits of exercise on the brain are endless. It is pretty widely known in the medical field that exercise improves memory and thinking skills.

But, did you know that exercise during pregnancy helps your baby’s brain as well? According to a study in the Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, children of moms who exercised during pregnancy “scored higher on tests of language skills and intelligence at age 5 compared with the kids of sedentary moms.” Apparently, moderate levels of cortisol (a stress hormone secreted during exercise) promotes brain development in your baby.

I’m sold! What is good for me is apparently good for my baby too. My goal is to continue to practicing yoga and walking at least 10,ooo steps a day. I am using the heart app on my iphone to measure my progress.

2.  Have a good calendar system and to-do list

I write everything down in my iphone calendar or my do-to list. If its not written down, then it often doesn’t happen. You’ve got to have a plan because its impossible to remember everything in your head.

In addition, my husband and I have a dry erase calendar system on our refrigerator (I know we could just sync our I-phone calendars but it just helps us to see it visually). We write down all of our work and personal activities including work dinners, social events, appointments, play dates, date nights and even gym schedules. When one of us knows about a schedule update, it goes up on the board. I have 2 calendars on the fridge so we can always stay one month ahead. This system minimizes 99% of schedule confusion and almost completely eliminates double booking anything. It is a marriage win.

3.  Continue to practice gratitude

I have to remind myself that there is no point in getting frustrated about nature’s effects on my pregnancy. I am so grateful to be adding a baby boy into our family in a few short months, and the physical and mental changes are worth it all. As a nurse I am all too aware of how not everyone gets to have a family or even healthy children. A healthy pregnancy is a gift.

There is a meditation app called Headspace that I sometimes use that has the added benefit of helping me find more gratitude in my life. I wrote a little about that here.

4.  Get enough sleep

I am an ER nurse and the mother of a toddler, which means my only free time is during the hours when I probably should be getting more rest (after my daughter goes to bed at 7:30pm). I am really working on trying to be in bed no later then 9:30 or earlier if possible. Pregnant or not, sleep deprivation will make anyone’s brain not work at it’s best.

Not getting enough sleep can contribute to mental health disorders including antepartum and postpartum depression. In other words, the pregnant mom + good sleep = better brain health.

One way to find extra time in your life is to cut down on the amount of social media you use. You would be amazed at the amount of time gained back by completely eliminating it for a while.

5.  Get the recommended amount of Omega 3s

Newborn baby feet

What is good for mom is apparently good for baby too! It appears that both exercise and healthy food choices are good for everyone’s brain health.

Omega 3’s are good for both mom and babies’ brain health. They are important for cognitive (brain memory and performance) and behavior function.

I try to eat wild salmon twice a week and add flax seed to our morning smoothies. I also take an omega 3 supplement for pregnancy.

Accepting the joys of pregnancy (brain)

I already knew that delivering a few gorgeous babies meant making some sacrifices along the way. Understanding why these changes happen helps me accept them as a natural part of the motherhood process. The more I read and talk about how motherhood is supposed to change me, the easier it is to make positive adjustments and deal with it.

I am accepting my pregnancy brain as a blessing, not a curse, despite the occasional idiot thing I might do or say. Especially since the research says my brain will not be lost forever.

Motherhood is a mountainous emotional and physical transition so I’m really trying to lighten up on myself a bit. Mother nature sure does have an interesting sense of humor though. The least I can do is laugh at myself a little.

Sarah, Mother Nurse Love

Additional Recommended Reading

Pregnant Nurse Precautions To Consider At Work

Important Facts About Premature Birth

Why I Am So Lucky To Be Full Term

Pregnancy Kick Counts:  What I Learned About Fetal Movement