Editor’s Note: Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a primary care pediatrician, director of pediatric telemedicine and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Pregnancy brain, mommy brain, momnesia — our culture has learned to use the term to describe moms everywhere when they seem forgetful or scattered before and soon after giving birth. But the idea that motherhood is in itself associated with a decline in cognitive abilities may be both wrong and unfair to moms and their brains, writes a team of scientists in an article released Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology.
The few studies that have attempted to investigate whether mothers actually suffer from memory loss during pregnancy and in the postpartum period have failed to find significant differences in the abilities of women who have children compared with women without children, according to the new article’s authors, Dr. Clare McCormack, Dr. Bridget L. Callaghan and Dr. Jodi L. Pawluski.
But ask new moms and 8 out of 10 will say they have experienced the memory loss and brain fog popularly characterized as “mommy brain.” Why then, are the studies not finding what so many women experience?
One reason, the authors explain, may be the peace and quiet of the labs where most studies are performed. Without screaming children and a long list of tasks to manage right in front of them, thinking becomes easier and moms perform just as well as women without children.
Another possible reason: “Mommy brain” is not real and people are just quick to judge. A simple slip of the mind in an often overworked and sleep deprived mom is promptly labeled as “mommy brain” by a society expecting women’s cognitive abilities to decline after having children. Women too may have learned to use the term to cope with the impossibilities of new motherhood. Laughing those off and calling it “mommy brain” may well be a cry for help by moms who don’t feel supported.
Finally, studies may not be finding what so many women are experiencing because scientists may simply be asking the wrong questions.
In attempting to find the supposed loss in brain function women may experience after having children, they may be missing the remarkable adaptation and reshaping of neural connections happening in women’s brains to prepare them for the enormous task that is parenting.
When moms are put through studies that more accurately mimic the reality of their new circumstances, they perform better than women without kids. Testing mothers on parenting tasks found they showed a boost in learning and an improvement in long-term memory overall, the authors explained.
These types of studies — the ones that start from an understanding of just how complex, busy and dynamic the brains of new and expecting moms are — hold the most potential for a true understanding of exactly what happens when women become mothers, the authors say. Until then, they have one message: Stop calling it “mommy brain.”