You misplace your keys. You forgot where you parked the car. You can’t focus on grocery shopping. And you have no idea why you went into the kitchen in the first place—and soon you’re supposed to care for a living child?!
It’s enough to give any expectant mama a mild anxiety attack, but studies show some four in five moms-to-be experience pregnancy brain. And, now a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia shows we’re not just imagining it.
According to the study, pregnant women show poorer cognitive functioning when it comes to focusing on tasks, remembering details, problem-solving and multi-tasking than women who aren’t expecting.
“The declines start to happen between the first and the second trimester, and then look like they stabilize... but are most obvious in the third trimester,” senior study author Linda Bryne tells Australia’s ABC News. “Women often report that multi-tasking seemed to be a bit harder [during pregnancy], and we found that was the case.”
For the study, researchers from Deakin University conducted a meta-analysis of 20 studies that showed a link between pregnancy and brain changes. From that data, they assessed the cognitive functioning of 709 pregnant women and 521 non-pregnant women.
They discovered mamas-to-be performed worse on tasks measuring memory, attention, inhibition, decision-making and planning than their non-pregnant counterparts.
So, what causes pregnancy brain?
A 2016 study published in Nature Neuroscience discovered that a pregnant woman’s brain sees a temporary reduction in grey matter in the hippocampus, the region that controls memory function. The research also found a loss of grey matter in the area associated with processing social information—which actually promotes bonding behaviors between a mother and her child. (Don’t worry: Grey matter is restored two years after birth, according to the findings.)
“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 mothers,” says Sasha Davies, first author of the Medical Journal of Australia study and a Ph.D. candidate at Deakin University.
But don’t blame baby brain all on physiology. Davies notes that the symptoms of pregnancy—such as sleep problems and mood disruptions—can also contribute to forgetfulness.
The good news is that, as per usual, you’re probably being harder on yourself than others are. According to the Australian researchers, the declines in cognitive function during pregnancy may be noticeable to people close to you, but they don’t have a discernible impact otherwise.
“So while some pregnant women may notice they don’t feel as ‘sharp’ as usual,” Davies says, “these effects are realistically not likely to have any dramatic impact on everyday life.”
That’s good to know. Now where’s the car?