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I've been so forgetful since I got pregnant. Is "pregnancy brain" a real condition?
Pregnancy brain is real for many expectant moms – between 50 and 80 percent of pregnant women report having memory lapses or focus problems. Exactly what causes this brain fog during pregnancy is unclear, though research is ongoing.
The idea of pregnancy brain (sometimes called "momnesia") makes sense intuitively: You may be distracted by worry or excitement about this new adventure you're beginning and the major life changes it will bring. Stress and anxiety can also interfere with your ability to concentrate and remember things, and the fatigue that's so common during pregnancy probably doesn't help either.
What's the science behind momnesia?
Pregnancy sends a flood of hormones throughout your body, and this triggers major physiological changes. No one knows quite yet how that affects the brain and memory because the science behind it is mixed.
Some research shows pregnant women have a significantly worse memory than women who aren't pregnant, and other studies show memory in pregnant women gets worse only in the third trimester. Other research shows that pregnant women do just as well on cognitive tests as women who aren't pregnant.
Interestingly, in one study pregnant women rated themselves as having performed worse on memory and focus tests than they would have before pregnancy, even though they tested just as well as a group of nonpregnant women.
In 2016, a small but important study revealed that pregnancy can cause significant and long-lasting changes in women's brain structure. The researchers did MRI scans on the brains of 25 women and found that they had lost some gray matter during pregnancy – specifically in the parts of the brain responsible for social reasoning and the ability to see other people's perspectives. This change persisted two years after delivery.
The researchers speculated that this reduction in gray matter is from the body getting rid of neural networks it doesn't need, which may help the brain become more efficient and specialized for motherhood. It sounds counterintuitive, but this refinement may actually help women bond with their baby and respond better to their needs.
Although the researchers didn't draw any definite conclusions about memory changes during pregnancy, they acknowledged the possibility that these changes in brain structure might be associated with an impaired memory.
What can I do about pregnancy brain to improve my memory?
Fortunately, you can make small changes to keep from feeling like a flake. Try these strategies to help you remember what's important:
- Keep a daily calendar. Use the calendar app on your phone, or carry a small planner with you.
- Give important objects a "home." Store things you use often, such as keys, in the same place.
- Set alarms and notifications. Schedule alerts for important meetings or tasks on your phone or computer.
- Take snapshots. If you park your car in a large or crowded lot, snap a photo of the location with your phone. You can also use photos to save visual notes of things like slides at a meeting, event flyers, business cards, and magazine articles.
- Use a note-taking app. Keep track of important notes and set reminders by typing, writing, taking a photo, clipping a web page, or recording your voice on your phone or computer. Good options include Simplenote, Google Keep, Evernote, and OneNote.
- Try mnemonic devices. When you meet someone new, think of an association to help you remember the person's name. For example, if you meet someone named Lily, imagine her holding a bouquet of lilies.
- Carry a notebook. Write down everything in a small notebook. It doesn't need to be fancy – just having everything in one place makes it easier to refresh your memory.
- Get plenty of sleep. You need enough sleep not only to have energy to grow and carry a baby, but also to help refresh your memory and be alert mentally every day.
- Exercise. Working out regularly (with your healthcare provider's approval) not only keeps you healthy during pregnancy, it can also sharpen your memory and help you sleep better at night, increasing your alertness during the day.
- Ask for help. Ask your partner, family, or friends to pitch in with chores, errands, and childcare. A lightened load means less stress, which can affect your ability to remember things.
- Simplify. Take a break from multitasking and prioritize what's necessary and what's not. Save your energy for the things that are really important to you.
Is forgetfulness a sign that something's wrong with me or my pregnancy?
A little forgetfulness during pregnancy is normal. However, if you're having a lot of trouble thinking or concentrating and also feeling down or you notice a loss of interest or pleasure in things you normally enjoy most of the time for at least two weeks, you could be suffering from depression.
And any time you're feeling unusually sad or overwhelmed, talk to your provider so you can get the help you need. You don't have to suffer alone.