Let’s talk about your brain on motherhood for a minute or two.
I’m a neuroscientist who studies the maternal brain. When I mention the brain and motherhood to people often the first thing that comes to mind for many, and maybe you too, is the forgetfulness or brain fog that comes with pregnancy and motherhood that so many women talk about - aka Mom Brain, Mommy Brain, Pregnancy Brain or Baby Brain.
It’s a topic that comes up a lot on social media (#mombrain / #mumbrain) and I thought we could dig a little deeper here into what our Mom Brain really is. Stay with me, it’s pretty amazing!
Baby Brain is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary online as “the condition of forgetting things and not being able to think clearly that pregnant women are often said to experience”. Mom Brain is a more common term for essentially the same thing but extending to the postpartum period.
“I used to have functioning brain cells but traded them in for children” is a phrase I’ve seen going around social media. It has stuck with me for a few reasons. First of all, I’m a mom and I can relate to the brain fog that comes with having kids (and a million things to do). Research has shown that the majority of pregnant people and new moms, when asked, will say that they experience short term memory loss, lack of concentration, or brain fog. For me it was forgetting words for things on a regular basis or mixing words up.
What’s interesting to note is that although many women report experiencing memory changes with motherhood, the research to date has shown that these memory changes are not large, are specific to certain types of memory and generally would not significantly impact important day-to-day functioning. This may be due to the fact that many of these memory tests are done in quiet laboratory settings and not in a normal home environment — something research I was involved in started to show.
This means that our environment is impacting our memory as moms. How many things we put on our to-do lists can impact how much our brain will remember. This happens to all of us regardless of having children, but perhaps more so when we have kids because of the extra ‘stuff’ that we are doing when we have a baby — not to mention lack of sleep and the physical, social and psychological changes that can take place with parenting.
Not all memory is affected negatively by motherhood. In fact, recent research has shown that visual memory is improved in both moms and dads. Crazy right?
One of my favourite studies shows that after only a few hours of being with their newborn both moms and dads can recognize their infant by touching the back of the infant’s hand when given a choice between three infants. Think about how amazing that is. Wow! [Go ahead and try this the next time you’re with your parent friends and let me know how it goes. ]
You can recognize your infant within hours of birth simply by touching the back of their hand. Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash
Apart from these amazing mom brain memory moments, let’s actually talk about what happens to our brains across pregnancy.
Do we really trade in brain cells for children?
This question directly relates to my doctoral research where I reported that in the brains of moms (mother rats, to be exact) there is a decrease in the production of new neurons of the hippocampus.
I know, you’re thinking “I knew it!”, my brain has gone to mush. Truth be told it hasn’t. I actually found that these mom rats did better on memory tests, particularly at the time of weaning.
How does this relate to human mothers? Well, a study came out a few years ago showing that after pregnancy many brain areas decrease in volume in new mothers — another decrease in your mom brain. But the thing is, this research didn’t find any relationship between these decreases in brain areas after pregnancy and forgetfulness.
They did find that the changes in a mother’s brain were associated with how she felt about her infant. The more decreased the brain areas, the more attached she felt towards her baby. I like to think that less is more when it comes to our brains and motherhood.
Perhaps our mom brain is fine tuning across pregnancy to become efficiently functioning organs devoted to caring for a newborn.
I also want to point out the obvious — that you don’t need to give birth to be a parent. You also don’t need to give birth to see changes in your parental brain. A lot of these changes have to do with experience caring for a child.
Our mom brains, and parental brains in general, are learning so many things when we parent. Things that we don’t even think about or notice.
So why then is there all this talk of Mom Brain as a negative thing? Why aren’t we focusing on the amazing things that our Mom Brains do? This discussion is perhaps more fitting for a whole other post, but I can tell you that I can relate to having classic ‘mom brain moments’, even now years after being a mom of 2 under 2, but I’ve started to think of them as mental load moments and not related to my Mom Brain.
Mom Brain should symbolize all the amazing things that our brain is doing to ensure our little one survives. Things that I’ve only touched on briefly here.
Mom Brain is also a driving force in our ability to take care of ourselves as parents. If we start to think of it as something to support and nourish, because of all the work it is doing, maybe we will make friends with the brain fog and realize that it is a way for our brain to tell us to slow things down, take a break or get some support.
Mom Brain is a superpower and I hope we start rebranding it as such. It is a force making us into the parents that we are.