Is 'Baby Brain' Real? Memory Loss in Moms Explained

There was a time, long long ago, when you could have sworn you were a competent, capable individual. Then you get pregnant, and boom: You miss deadlines, misplace your keys, or blank on the name of a coworker you've known for years ... and once you give birth, the rest of what you think is ironclad in your mind slips away, too. Friends and enemies start whispering that you suffer from "baby brain," also known as "pregnancy brain" or "momnesia" -- all jokey ways to explain a worrisome new development: pregnancy- or motherhood-induced memory loss.

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For starters, you've clearly got company. "During pregnancy and after delivery, many women feel that they experience a loss of memory," says Jessica Shepherd, MD, an OB/GYN at Bundoo and Her View Point, an online community for women. And science supports that this isn't just a figment of your imagination: One Australian analysis of 14 studies testing the memories of over 1,000 pregnant women and new moms found that memory loss does exist and can extend for up to a year after a baby's birth.

Why remains a mystery, although experts have their theories. "While we do not have clear medical evidence identifying the exact reason that some pregnant women experience 'pregnancy fog,' some theorize that changes in the hormone progesterone could be at the root of this phenomena," says Jenny Jaque, MD, an OB/GYN at the online health magazine Health Goes Female.

Progesterone is the hormone not only responsible for fatigue and mood swings during your period and pregnancy, but has also been shown to impair memory. In one study conducted in the Netherlands, women were administered a small dose of progesterone, then asked to memorize and recognize faces. Women given progesterone remembered fewer faces than those given a placebo, suggesting that this hormone alone could drain our brain of newly imported info. 

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The good news? The memory loss is slight and by no means permanent: For instance, the Australian study suggests that a mom might forget a new phone number but is still be able to recall one she'd dialed many times before. Memory tests involving more novel stimuli or major multitasking caused moms to falter, but they could handle more simple, familiar tasks with ease. In other words: While this might not be the time for moms to tackle challenging new feats, they can easily manage what they've been doing already.

Moms can also do things to keep baby brain at bay, says Gia Fruscione, a physical therapist and founder of DLVR Maternity who helps pregnant and postpartum women cope with the life changes brought on by a new family member. For starters, moms should try to squeeze in a little exercise -- easier said than done when you're preggers or have just popped out a baby, but even 5 or 10 minutes of mild activity can help.

"Being physically active is essential to keep our minds well oxygenated and our brain connections strong," explains Fruscione. "Exercises where you cross over the center line of your body -- bending and touching your right hand to your left toe -- strengthen the connections between the right and left hemispheres of your brain. This kind of workout is very important for managing complex tasks."

At the end of the day, though, so what if a few facts fall through the cracks? In addition to fighting the effects of progesterone, pregnant women and new moms are grappling with lack of sleep and the emotional stress of their new lives with kids. "I, for one, was very relieved when I learned about the biochemical reasoning for baby brain," says Fruscione. "At least then I knew it really wasn't 'all in my head.'"

Did you experience 'baby brain'?

 

Image © Tom Grill/Corbis

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