Forgetfulness. Lack of focus. Occasional foggy-mindedness. Ask a new or expectant mom if âpregnancy brainâ is real, and most will laugh (or groan) and say thereâs no doubt about it. But when researchers have gone looking for proof of these cognitive hiccups, the results have been mixed.
A talked-about 2014 study from Brigham Young University found no memory or attention issues among pregnant or postpartum women compared to matched controls. âObjectively, the pregnant and postpartum women and non-pregnant women performed equally well in the cognitive tests,â says Dr. Michael Larson, a clinical neuropsychologist and coauthor of the BYU study.
But subjectivelyâthat is, when women were asked to rate their own performance on the testsâthe pregnant and postpartum women felt theyâd done poorly compared to their non-pregnant counterparts.
âThereâs this cultural stereotype that women are supposed to suffer cognitively during or after pregnancy,â Larson says. Belief in this stereotype could hamper some womenâs confidence in their cerebral acuity even though their brains are working just fine, he says.
But the BYU study is not the final word on the subject of âpregnancy brain.â Importantly, Larson says all the women in his experiment were tested âin ideal circumstances.â That is, he and his colleagues controlled for sleep, stress and other factors that could disproportionately affect pregnant and postpartum women outside the lab.
âThereâs likely a disconnect between real-world functioning and ideal-experiment functioning,â he says. âBut our goal was to see if womenâs cognitive abilities changed during or following pregnancy, and we didnât find evidence of that.â
In the âreal world,â thereâs little doubt pregnant and postpartum women have to contend with factors that may affect their thinking, says Dr. Louanne Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Female Brain.
During the first few months of pregnancy, a womanâs progesterone levels soar to 20, 30 or even 40 times their normal levels, Brizendine says. This hormone is a potent sedative, and its surge explains why some women may feel especially worn out during the early stages of pregnancy. (The BYU study only involved women in their third trimester.)
âThis progesterone surge doesnât mean you lose smarts or brain function,â Brizendine says. âItâs just that you feel sleepy a lot of the time.â
While a womanâs brain and body become accustomed to the uptick in progesterone as her pregnancy progresses, other hormonal fluctuationsâas well as body changes and discomfortâoften lead to restive sleep. So does having to deal with a newborn at all hours of the night.
âItâs not reasonable to think that a woman could go through all the hormonal and physical changes of pregnancy and not have it affect her brain just as it affects her body,â Brizendine says. At the same timeâand as the BYU study underscoresâa pregnant womanâs brain doesnât become somehow deficient or less capable, she says.
All of this can start to seem like semantics. But because some might use âpregnancy brainâ as an excuse to justify workplace practices that discriminate against women, the semantics can prove important.
âModern fathers live and breathe all of the pregnancy stages along with their partners, feel much of the same stress and distraction, and are often just as involved in post-natal care and middle-of-the-night feedings,â Brizendine adds. In the real world, dads are often as likely as moms to grapple with poor sleep and preoccupying thoughtsâthough they donât suffer from the stereotypes Larson mentioned.
Expectant couples aside, few of us walk into work fully rested and unburdened by stress or distraction. Even hunger can mess with our ability to think clearly. So while researchers keep unpacking âpregnancy brainâ and its sociopolitical implications, itâs safe to say that all peopleâincluding pregnant womenâoccasionally have to work with somewhat encumbered brains.