Many mothers know the term baby brain. It describes the phenomenon of decreased memory during pregnancy. During my pregnancies, I worked well into the third trimester with no problems but did note the occasional odd memory lapse such as turning up to appointments on completely the wrong day something that had previously never happened to me.
A meta-analysis study by Deakin University examined baby brain in 20 studies looking at 1200 women. It found that baby brain was real but minor in its impact, with pregnant women having reduced cognitive function compared to non-pregnant women. Four out of five pregnant women experienced these symptoms. “General cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning were significantly reduced during the third trimester of pregnancy, but not during the first two trimesters," the authors wrote.
Published in the Medical Journal of Australia, the study found minor changes in cognitive function in pregnant women occurring early in pregnancy. Most changes did not become noticeable until the third trimester.
Women need not worry about baby brain as the cognitive lapses experienced were most commonly minor such as forgetting or failing to book appointments rather than an inability to perform at work. The researchers suggest that the results were consistent with recent findings of long term reactions in brain grey matter occurring during pregnancy.
According to lead author Sasha Davies:
“An intriguing study published last year showed there are reductions in grey matter in the brains of pregnant women in regions known to be closely tied to processing social information, such as decoding infant facial expressions and establishing healthy bonding between mum and baby. This presents a compelling idea that 'baby brain' is actually an important adaptive phenomenon that might help women prepare for raising their children by allowing their brains to adapt to their new role as new mothers."
The researchers said that women reported changes to their executive functioning such as having more difficulty multi-tasking. “Women often report that multi-tasking seemed to be a bit harder [during pregnancy], and we found that was the case," says co-author Linda Byrne.
The researchers suggested a range of things pregnant women can try to maximize their brain capacity whilst pregnant. These included:
- Good sleep hygiene. Making sure you are well rested is important particularly in the first and last trimesters. The first and third trimesters are when pregnant women feel most fatigued so ensure adequate rest during these periods.
- Maintaining good nutrition and exercise habits
- Make use of memory aids, such as phone apps and reminders. Even if your memory was previously good making lists and writing reminders is a good way of just making sure that important things are not missed
It seems that baby brain is real, but only minor in its impact and may serve a function to help us be parents. More research is needed to learn how long it takes women's baby brain to bounce back to normal after birth. If you experience baby brain when pregnant, rather than panicking about your mental state, using memory aid techniques and looking after your general well-being will likely limit any potential impact of temporary cognitive changes associated with pregnancy.