You Asked: Is Pregnancy Brain A Myth?
Many expectant moms say it's real, but some experts believe otherwise.
Forgetfulness. Lack of focus. Occasional foggy-mindedness. Ask a new or expectant mom if â€œpregnancy brainâ€ is real, and most will laugh (or groan) and say thereâ€™s 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. â€œObjectively, 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 subjectivelyâ€”that is, when women were asked to rate their own performance on the testsâ€”the pregnant and postpartum women felt theyâ€™d done poorly compared to their non-pregnant counterparts.
â€œThereâ€™s this cultural stereotype that women are supposed to suffer cognitively during or after pregnancy,â€ Larson says. Belief in this stereotype could hamper some womenâ€™s 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 â€œpregnancy brain.â€ Importantly, Larson says all the women in his experiment were tested â€œin 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.
â€œThereâ€™s likely a disconnect between real-world functioning and ideal-experiment functioning,â€ he says. â€œBut our goal was to see if womenâ€™s cognitive abilities changed during or following pregnancy, and we didnâ€™t find evidence of that.â€
In the â€œreal world,â€ thereâ€™s 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 womanâ€™s 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.)
â€œThis progesterone surge doesnâ€™t mean you lose smarts or brain function,â€ Brizendine says. â€œItâ€™s just that you feel sleepy a lot of the time.â€
While a womanâ€™s brain and body become accustomed to the uptick in progesterone as her pregnancy progresses, other hormonal fluctuationsâ€”as well as body changes and discomfortâ€”often lead to restive sleep. So does having to deal with a newborn at all hours of the night.
â€œItâ€™s 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 timeâ€”and as the BYU study underscoresâ€”a pregnant womanâ€™s brain doesnâ€™t become somehow deficient or less capable, she says.
All of this can start to seem like semantics. But because some might use â€œpregnancy brainâ€ as an excuse to justify workplace practices that discriminate against women, the semantics can prove important.
â€œModern 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 thoughtsâ€”though they donâ€™t 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 â€œpregnancy brainâ€ and its sociopolitical implications, itâ€™s safe to say that all peopleâ€”including pregnant womenâ€”occasionally have to work with somewhat encumbered brains.