Is Mom Brain real? Understanding and coping with postpartum brain fog
You’ve likely heard of Mom Brain or “momnesia.” Sometimes it can be funny, like accidentally putting the milk in the pantry and the cereal in the fridge. Sometimes it can be frustrating, like forgetting a word or where you parked. And other times it can be downright unsettling, like feeling incompetent, inadequate and as if you’ll never rebound.
The good news is that while the symptoms of Mom Brain—memory loss, brain fog and lack of concentration—are an annoying obstacle to everyday life, it is not typically a concern. Kristina Jones, MD, OBGYN on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center and mom of three, says that “while it’s a well-known term, it’s not a medically official diagnosis.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s not wildly common. Dr. Jones estimates that between 50% to 80% of postpartum patients experience Mom Brain. She said most experts agree that it typically lasts two to four months postpartum but as a mother herself is skeptical of that timeframe.
“Environmental factors play a big role,” Dr. Jones said. “A woman may be using her baseline cognitive functioning capacity from day to day. Then you add in a child, so your multitasking demands immediately increase. A woman may not only be coping with lack of sleep from the newborn schedule and physical changes of her body, but also stress from resuming work responsibilities, among other stressors. As women shift priority to their child, it is easy to forgot to take care of themselves. For some women, the shift in concentration or memory is going to last longer than two months”.
There are many factors that contribute to the Mom Brain phenomenon. Let’s dive into a few of those factors—and what you can do to combat them.
Counteract neurobiological changes by stimulating the brain
The physical changes a woman’s body endures through pregnancy are well known and widely studied. What is lesser discussed are the neurobiological changes that happen in her brain. When a woman is pregnant, the gray matter in her brain actually shrinks.
Gray matter is the portion of the brain where processing and responding to social signals happens, so the fact that a postpartum mother often struggles with these issues makes sense.
Although this may sound alarming, a study by researchers at Amsterdam University Medical Center showed that the decrease in gray matter isn’t detrimental and memory isn’t necessarily affected. In fact, it is the brain evolving to better care for a new baby—like the heightened ability to detect dangerous situations or the urge to nest.
Estrogen and progesterone levels are also at an all-time high during pregnancy. These hormone changes are presumed to contribute to brain fog. And when those levels drop postpartum, this may contribute to the fog as well.
“We attribute a lot to hormonal changes in pregnancy—nausea, headaches, irritability—but the symptoms are not all physical,” Dr. Jones said.
While these neurobiological and hormonal changes are a completely normal occurrence, there are some things you can do to “exercise” your brain.
“Crossword puzzles, reading, certain card or board games—anything that stimulates the brain—will be great to increase cognitive ability,” Dr. Jones said. “Keep your brain thinking!”
Address underlying nutritional deficiencies
Nutritional and vitamin deficiencies are two other factors that contribute to Mom Brain, especially if the mother is nursing.
“It’s been suggested that if someone is poor in nutrition, their memory can be affected. They may be lacking DHA, choline, Vitamins C and D, all which can affect memory and concentration,” Dr. Jones said.
She suggests examining your diet to see how you can get more nutrients and working with a registered dietitian if you need personalized support. You can also talk to your OBGYN about getting a bloodwork panel to assess what supplements may be needed.
In addition to your pre- or post-natal vitamins, Dr. Jones suggests making sure you’re getting your Vitamin C and D, as well as choline. These vitamins are usually in a pre/post natal supplement, but you may need larger amounts.
Establish healthy sleep patterns
Sleep directly affects attention, response times, learning ability and memory, so insufficient sleep can have a negative impact on those cognitive skills. Unfortunately, consistent lack of sleep and chronic exhaustion are all too common amongst most parents. This is why dads, nonbiological mothers and other caretakers can suffer from brain fog too.
Adults should aim to get between eight to nine hours of sleep a night. While it may seem impossible to catch up on sleep, Dr. Jones said this should be a priority. Establishing a nighttime routine for yourself is key—try setting (and sticking to) a certain bedtime, as well as turning off all screens an hour or so before you sleep.
Find ways to manage stress and anxiety
If you’re feeling the mental and emotional toll of motherhood, you’re not alone. In addition to all the usual day-to-day responsibilities (including jobs and careers for some mothers), women typically take on the role of managing the “behind-the-scenes” details of the household, like keeping a grocery list, scheduling the family’s appointments and keeping up with social activities.
Being stretched too thin can quickly overwhelm you, leading to those defeating feelings of foggy exhaustion. Dr. Jones suggests three very important things: therapy, deep breathing exercises (or meditation), and exercise.
“When I am counseling a patient about Mom Brain, I always have to take into consideration their stress and anxiety levels,” she said. “We always try to connect patients with a therapist if they are struggling with anxiety or depression.”
Therapy can help you learn coping mechanisms, like deep breathing exercises. Taking slow deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth has been shown to be an effective treatment for anxiety. You can perform this as a daily routine or when the highest point of stress occurs during any given day.
As for exercise, Dr. Jones said it’s equally as important.
“Exercise increases blood to the brain, your endorphins, your dopamine—all of the neurochemicals that increase and improve your mood. Even in non-pregnant women, there have been numerous studies on exercise and its positive effect on memory.”
Is it Mom Brain or something more serious?
So, what if you’re very concerned with your cognitive abilities and believe it’s an issue bigger than Mom Brain?
“I start with assessing her baseline,” Dr. Jones said. “I ask: Is this something you’ve had for a long time or have you only noticed it during the pregnancy? This is typically a good indicator of if this is mom brain or if it could be a more complicated health condition.
However, if it gets to a point where, for example, a patient doesn’t remember where she’s going when she’s driving, that’s a bigger issue and may warrant a referral to a neurologist.
As a mother herself, Dr. Jones knows the annoyance of Mom Brain but said that in truth, it’s not serious and usually it’s not a huge health concern. Remember that physical changes aren’t the only thing that’s happening during pregnancy and postpartum. There are a host of changes happening cognitively and emotionally too, so make sure to take care of your whole self as best you can.
All of these factors play a part in Mom Brain. It is never something to feel embarrassed by or sorry for. In fact, it can be considered another fascinating transformation your body and mind go through on this amazing, challenging and surprising journey that is motherhood.
Struggling with Mom Brain or other postpartum challenges? Talk to your OBGYN or find one near you.
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