Pregnant women often joke with me that their brains have turned to mush. Walking into the kitchen and forgetting what they’ve come for, being less able to focus at work or feeling generally emotional instead of incisive. But is there a physiological reason for this, or is it just the natural result of the exhaustion of juggling the demands of work and home as well as nurturing a new life? Does baby brain really exist?
As many as four in five women say that they go into a sort of pregnancy fog. They may become forgetful, their mind feels less sharp and they find they are a little oversensitive and less able to concentrate. But are they simply attributing totally normal experiences to pregnancy? Let’s face it, we all misplace our phones or lose our train of thought every now and again. It could be that our cultural expectations mean that as soon as the thin blue line appears on the pregnancy test, it is blamed for every little failure and foible.
The truth is that the research into this subject is mixed. Some studies suggest that the hormonal surge of pregnancy may prepare the brain for the many challenges of maternity, helping you stay calm and become in tune with your baby’s needs. Researchers at the University of London examined the brains of pregnant women and found increased activity in the area that affects emotions. The pregnant women tended to use the right side of the brain more when they were processing emotions. It was postulated that this could be a natural adaptation to help prepare them to bond with their babies. The change in brain activity seemed to help women recognize emotions in others. This increased emotional intelligence may come at the expense of other cognitive functions, so that women think differently rather than less.
More recent research showed no significant difference between the memories and mental skills of women who were pregnant compared to those who weren’t. This was despite the fact that the pregnant women did complain of significantly greater difficulties, so what’s going on?
A Canadian study in 2011 caught my eye. They found that pregnant women did not display any problems at all in lab-based cognitive tests. However, they were significantly more likely to forget to phone the lab on time or to return their questionnaires. So it could be that the quiet lab environment enabled them to focus, whereas the distractions and competing demands of normal life can make things more tricky.
Whatever the reason for your mental changes, you can help yourself cut through the pregnancy fog.
- Make sure you rest and relax, get plenty of sleep and schedule pauses into your day. Don’t think of it as laziness, by recharging your batteries you can continue performing to the best of your abilities.
- Trigger your memory: it can help to make lists, set phone reminders and use the same storage place for keys, purse and mobile, so that you minimize daily stresses and strains.
- Embrace your new talents, your pregnancy may have helped you become more intuitive and responsive to the needs of others.
Above all, be kind to yourself. We all make mistakes, if you forget something don’t beat yourself up. Remember that your body is doing the extraordinary job of growing a whole new being, so look after it, nurture it and above all cut it some slack if it occasionally lets you down!
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