Pregnancy changes things. You'll likely gain weight. Your nipples may change colors. Your breasts may increase in size. Your feet may swell. And your memory and mental processes might be affected, too, a phenomenon that's come to be known as "Mommy Brain."
So how does your brain change after pregnancy, exactly? And how long does pregnancy brain last after birth? Here's everything you need to know about so-called "Mommy Brain" and how women are combatting it.
What Is "Mommy Brain?"
"Mommy Brain," also known as "Mom Brain" and "Pregnancy Brain," refers to the period of time, up to two years postpartum, when a new mother experiences brain changes that some say lead to brain fog and forgetfulness. There isn't a scientific name for the phenomenon, and more research on the subject is still needed. But the research that does exist indicates there are a couple of notable changes that pregnant and postpartum women's brains undergo.
What does pregnancy do to your brain? In 2016, researchers from the Netherlands and Spain used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study pregnant women's brains — they compared MRI images taken before the women became pregnant with the MRI images after they had given birth. And they found that pregnancy actually shrinks the brain's gray matter, which is the tissue containing the cell bodies and synapses of nerve cells. This loss in volume persists for at least two years following childbirth, they discovered.
So does your brain shrink when you are pregnant? Yes. But it's not necessarily a bad thing, according to mixed research.
“Everybody always thinks of volume loss as something negative, as a loss of function,” Elseline Hoekzema, a neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands and the lead author of the study has said. But she goes on to explain that volume loss can actually represent a "fine-tuning of connections," making for more efficient and streamlined brain circuits. In fact, the areas of the brain that shrink the most are those involved in social cognition and, when new mothers are shown pictures of their babies, these areas of the brain light up with activity. Thus, this fine-tuning of enhanced social cognition could help mothers care for their babies and is more so an example of neuroplasticity — the brain's ability to evolve to accommodate new stimuli — than a "loss" of some kind.
That said, as the maternal brain evolves and social cognition is enhanced, this period of heightened plasticity could involve a trade off. Many new mothers report experiencing memory problems and brain fog, chalking it up to general fatigue, hormonal changes, and their intoxicating new love. Supporting this, one 2010 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that pregnant women experience some impairment with verbal memory (other memory-based functions —like learning, reasoning, and comprehension — were unaffected).
It's worth noting, however, that confirmation bias could also impact the way new moms feel about their memory functions. A 2014 study found that pregnant women who self-identified as "cognitively fuzzy" performed at much higher levels when tested than what they reported themselves capable of. In other words, when women are consistently presented with the messaging that pregnancy will lead to decreased cognitive functions, they may be likelier to believe this true of their own experience.
How Can You Combat "Mommy Brain"?
Regardless of the true source of "Mommy Brain," there are plenty of women who do report facing cognitive hurdles in the aftermath of new parenthood. We spoke to four of them to learn how they're dealing.
1. Write Notes to Yourself
Folse says that her memory didn't improve as time went on, so she'd make herself to-do lists with even the most basic tasks. While, she would forget where her list was, often, she found that scheduling her to-do list — plus typing out any information into her notes app on her phone with alarms — guaranteed that she'd remember.
"Since becoming a mother, my brain seems to have only one priority and that is keeping my tiny human alive," she explains. "As the days go on I can remember more and more without an alarm or notes to remind me."
2. Hang onto a Routine
"I am definitely experiencing Mommy Brain... It feels like my brain is on overload trying to juggle the many responsibilities of motherhood, including taking care of my kids and myself, working outside of the home, and making time for my husband," says Brenda Kosciuk, a mother of two, a teacher and a blogger at Paper Heart Family. "Keeping a written planner and having a solid routine is what keeps me floating just above the water each day. I also think lightening the load is key. We as modern mothers cannot do all the things."
Kosciuk says she still has her days when she feels like she's "losing [her] mind," but she's constantly tweaking her routine to try to make herself more efficient and less forgetful.
3. Exercise the Brain to Maintain Your Mental Health
“I recently gave birth to a lovely son via an emergency caesarian section and, I must say, I did and I continue to experience Mommy Brain from time to time," says Pratibha Vuppuluri, CEO of She Started It!. "I counter it by eating healthy, making sure I get enough rest (this one’s hard because I am nursing a baby, but it’s doable), I read a lot (as part of my brain workouts), I take down notes (to make sure that when mommy brain attacks, I have a note to remind me of what I am supposed to do), and I keep in touch with family and friends (I believe conversing with people helps maintain good mental health). So far, so good. I think these activities are working for me.”
4. Say "No" More Often
"Say ‘no’ more often — it’s simple, but it’s true," advises Chelsea Looney, a new mom. "I am a frequent offender of taking on too much, always saying yes and then running myself so tired I hit a wall and need to decompress. Some call it FOMO; I call it social. When you transition from not having kids, to having an infant, your life is simply different. You have new and different demands for your time, someone is physically depending on you and your mind isn’t granted as much time to be still. No is an acceptable and encouraged response as a new mom, and I wish I would have said it more in those first few months of my son’s arrival."
Looney admits that, before having kids, she thought that the term "Mommy Brain" was an excuse for "a parent’s lack of planning." Or even a "free pass thrown in the wind" when a girlfriend of hers was late to a get-together or forgot to bring her contribution to the shower she were hosting.
"I have regret for even thinking those things now and feel awful that I ever judged my mommy friends when, in fact, they were just trying to survive," she says. "With tight deadlines and competing priorities, both at home and at work, I am constantly in a mental state of survival. Pause. Now add Mommy Brain to that. A perfect storm. I think mom’s struggle with different symptoms of mommy brain. It could be a forgetful streak, a constant cloud that hinders creativity or even a blanket of depression. For me, it’s a gentle combo of them all."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.