The Science Behind “Mom Brain”
“Mom brain” refers to the common forgetfulness, lack of focus, and mental fogginess many women experience during pregnancy and after having a baby. It’s a colloquial term for what doctors call “mommy brain” or “pregnancy brain.”
The exact causes aren’t fully known, but major hormonal changes during and after pregnancy likely play a role. Levels of hormones like estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin and prolactin can increase by 10 to 100 times the normal amount during pregnancy. These hormones help support fetal development, but also cause changes in the brain and body.
Studies using MRIs show structural brain changes occur during this time, including shrinking of gray matter in certain regions related to social cognition. The hippocampus, responsible for memory, also gets smaller. The prefrontal cortex, controlling planning and organization, is affected too.
Brain size and structure eventually return to normal, but it can take 6 months to 2 years after giving birth. The brain also forms new neural connections related to motherhood. So in a way, the changes prepare a woman for motherhood even though they may temporarily hamper other cognitive functions.
The sleep deprivation and divided attention that comes with having a newborn also contribute to forgetfulness and mental fatigue for new moms. In summary, “mom brain” is a very real phenomenon caused by pregnancy hormones, structural brain changes, and the stresses of new motherhood. These effects are temporary and part of a process to prime the brain for motherhood.
Common Types of Forgetfulness
It’s not unusual for moms to experience frequent moments of forgetfulness or “mom brain.” Some of the most common types of forgetfulness new moms report include:
- Forgetting people’s names, even those you’ve known for years
- Walking into a room and forgetting why you went there
- Losing track of time or what day it is
- Misplacing items like your phone, keys or wallet
- Forgetting appointments or important dates
- Having trouble concentrating or focusing
- Getting distracted easily while trying to complete tasks
- Forgetting words mid-sentence
- Having difficulty multi-tasking or switching between tasks
- Struggling to remember details from recent events
- Forgetting groceries or items you intended to buy
- Repeating yourself without realizing it
These “mom brain moments” can be frustrating and embarrassing. But the good news is they are very common and tend to be temporary side effects of the major changes that come with motherhood. Understanding what causes mom brain can help new moms be patient with themselves.
Why It Happens
The “mom brain” phenomenon is caused by a combination of hormonal changes, lack of sleep, and major lifestyle adjustments that come with having a new baby.
When a woman is pregnant, her body is flooded with hormones like progesterone, estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin. These hormones are necessary to support the developing baby, but they also affect mood, memory and cognition. The spikes and drops in hormones continue after childbirth as the body regulates.
In addition, new moms are notoriously sleep deprived. The frequent night wakings and round-the-clock care of a newborn take a huge toll. Chronic sleep deprivation impairs memory consolidation and attention span. Even just a few nights of poor sleep can result in temporary cognitive decline.
Finally, becoming a new parent is a major life transition that requires taking on new responsibilities and routines. The mental load of remembering details like feedings, diaper changes, appointments and more can be immense. The brain’s ability to form new memories is decreased when it’s overtaxed.
The combination of hormone fluctuations, fatigue and an overloaded schedule strains the brain’s cognitive function. The changes are temporary though. As hormones regulate, sleep patterns improve, and new parenting routines become more familiar, the brain fog lifts.
It’s Normal and Temporary
Many new moms experience increased forgetfulness and mental fogginess, often referred to as “mom brain.” While frustrating, this cognitive decline is very common and usually temporary.
The mental demand of caring for a newborn leaves little mental bandwidth for other cognitive tasks. Sleep deprivation, stress and hormonal changes after giving birth also impair memory and concentration. For most women, these symptoms peak around 6-12 weeks postpartum.
As you adjust to motherhood and start catching up on sleep, “mom brain” typically improves. Hormones like estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin and cortisol usually balance back out over the first 6-12 months. As babies get older and more independent, moms often feel like their normal memory and mental sharpness returns.
The good news is mom brain is very common and normal! Don’t be too hard on yourself. Be patient, get rest when possible, and know that this mental fog is usually temporary.
Tips to Minimize Forgetfulness
Mom brain can be frustrating, but there are practical ways to help minimize forgetfulness during the early years of motherhood. Here are some tips:
- Use planners, calendars and to-do lists. Writing things down can help tremendously with remembering appointments, tasks and other commitments. Keep a calendar on the fridge, record appointments in your phone, and start each day by making a to-do list.
- Make reminders and alerts. Set phone alerts, calendar reminders, and email reminders for important events and tasks. Program recurring reminders for things like taking vitamins or paying bills.
- Note important info. Keep a notebook or notes app handy to jot down things you need to remember like phone numbers, emails or grocery list items. Stick reminder notes in key places.
- Maintain routines. Establishing daily and weekly routines can help parent brains run on autopilot. Always put your keys in the same spot, follow a morning routine, keep a consistent bedtime schedule.
- Organize and declutter. Keep things neat, tidy and organized so items are easier to find. Decluttering helps eliminate distractions so you can focus.
- Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner or older children to remind you of things. They can help remember appointments, where you left something, or what needs to get done.
- Focus on one task. Multi-tasking makes it harder to focus, so try to concentrate on one thing at a time. Eliminate distractions and interruptions if possible.
- Get enough rest. Being overtired exacerbates mom brain. Help minimize forgetfulness by trying to get 7-8 hours of sleep and taking breaks when needed.
- Stay hydrated and eat well. Drink plenty of water and eat a balanced, nutritious diet. Proper nutrition and hydration help brain functioning.
The Upside of Mom Brain
While mom brain can be frustrating at times, there are actually some benefits that come with it as well. Motherhood requires managing multiple demands and unpredictability, which can enhance skills like multitasking and flexibility. Mothers often report heightened emotional intelligence and empathy after having children. The creativity and problem-solving parts of the brain also get a boost from the novel tasks of parenting.
Research has found that the hippocampus, responsible for memory and spatial awareness, shrinks during pregnancy but regrows larger after birth. This adaption allows the brain to change structure and function to meet the needs of motherhood. The brain expands capabilities in areas like critical thinking, patience, planning ahead, juggling priorities, self-care, and compassion. So, alongside the forgetfulness, mothers gain emotional strength, mental flexibility, developmental knowledge, and creative thinking skills.
While mom brain can make you feel like you’re losing your memory, you’re actually gaining new neural pathways and strengths. The forgetfulness is a side effect of brain changes that enable you to grow into the amazing mama your kids need. The challenges of parenting transform the brain in ways that allow you to better care for your family. So, the next time you lose your keys or forget an appointment, remember that it’s a sign your brain is adapting to raise your children. The upside is a more emotionally intelligent, cognitively flexible, creative and resilient mom.
Embracing Mom Brain with Humor
One of the best ways to cope with forgetfulness and mental fog during motherhood is to embrace it with humor and compassion. After all, what else can we do but laugh at our absentminded moments? Letting go and seeing the comedy in our mom brain lapses can bring much needed lightness to an otherwise frustrating experience.
Many moms have shared stories that hilariously capture the reality of mom brain – like the time a mom found herself searching frantically for her phone only to realize it was in her back pocket, or the mom who washed the same load of laundry three times in a row because she kept getting distracted and forgetting. We’ve all been there!
Social media has become a place for moms to share their funniest mom brain stories. The hashtag #MomBrain is filled with relatable tales of forgetting car keys, walking into rooms and not remembering why, or accidentally putting the milk in the pantry. As we share the laughably absurd moments motherhood has given us, it brings us together in solidarity. We are all just trying our best, and our brains are a bit foggy right now, and that’s ok!
When we can let go of frustration and greet mom brain blunders with laughter, it helps us cope. Turning forgetfulness into a comedy of errors lifts our spirits and prevents us from being too hard on ourselves. Motherhood asks a lot of us, so we deserve compassion, not criticism. Laughing together bonds us through one of the most mystifying yet amusing parts of the journey.
So, embrace those mom brain moments! See the humor in your absentmindedness. Share stories with other moms who can relate. Give yourself grace, knowing this too shall pass. For now, we can make the best of this foggy state we’re in and trust that our minds will sharpen again soon. Until then, may the comedy of our lapses give us some relief and bright spots along the way!
When to See a Doctor
While a certain degree of forgetfulness is normal for new moms, there are times when it can indicate a more serious issue that requires medical attention. Here are some signs that it may be wise to consult your doctor about your forgetfulness:
- It persists well beyond the first year postpartum. By the time your baby is a toddler, mom brain should be improving. If you still struggle to remember things, it could indicate an underlying condition.
- It’s getting worse, not better. Mom brain tends to peak in the first 3-6 months postpartum and then gradually improves. If your memory seems to be declining over time, discuss it with your doctor.
- You regularly forget important current events or details about yourself or your family. Occasionally forgetting appointments or where you left your keys is normal. Frequently forgetting major recent events in your life is not.
- You feel confused or disoriented frequently. Struggling to have a conversation or follow directions can signal a neurological problem.
- You experience dramatic mood swings. Severe postpartum depression or anxiety can impair concentration and memory.
- You’re unusually exhausted. Thyroid disorders, anemia and other conditions can cause fatigue and memory problems.
- Head trauma or seizures could play a role. Discuss any recent injuries or unusual neurological symptoms.
If your forgetfulness is interfering with daily life, causing you distress, or accompanied by other unexplained symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. While mom brain is common, some medical conditions can also cause cognitive changes that require prompt evaluation and treatment. Don’t dismiss significant memory issues as just being mom brain without consulting your physician.
Mom Brain Is Temporary
It’s important to remember that the forgetfulness and mental fogginess associated with mom brain is temporary. While it can be frustrating in the moment when you can’t remember where you put your keys or you blank on a familiar name, take comfort in knowing that it will improve over time.
Research shows that most cognitive declines experienced after giving birth peak at around 6-9 months postpartum. After that, your memory and mental clarity will gradually return to normal as your hormones regulate and you adjust to motherhood. So, try not to stress too much or be too hard on yourself – your brain is still adapting to your new role as a mom!
Within a year or two after giving birth, your cognition should be back to your pre-pregnancy baseline, if not better! Some studies even suggest that the neural rewiring that happens from pregnancy may make mothers’ brains more resilient and “plastic.”
The key is being patient with yourself and recognizing that what you’re experiencing is normal for new moms. Give your brain time to “bounce back” and rest assured that the forgetfulness is only temporary. Stay focused on taking care of your new baby and don’t obsess over every minor “mom brain” moment. This too shall pass!
Celebrating Mom Brain
Parenting can be filled with moments of forgetfulness and brain fog. While these “mom brain” episodes can be frustrating, it helps to embrace them as a normal part of motherhood.
The truth is, they don’t detract from what an amazing parent you are. Making mistakes or feeling scattered now and then doesn’t make you less capable or competent. If anything, it’s a sign that your focus is where it should be – on your kids.
So, next time you lose your train of thought, go easy on yourself. See the humor in the situation whenever possible. Share a laugh about mom brain moments with other parents. Keep things in perspective, and remind yourself that this too shall pass as your children get older.
Most of all, celebrate your brain for all the new connections it’s making as you take on the exciting challenges of parenting. Keep nurturing your little ones, knowing that the memories you make with them are worth far more than the keys you may temporarily misplace. Embrace the messiness and forgetfulness of mom brain as a natural part of the journey.