'Mum brain' is real: Why mothers become forgetful after giving birth and what can help
Also called "mum-nesia", it's a phenomenon among mothers that, as troublesome as it sounds, might help one become a better parent. Experts explain why in CNA Women's ongoing series on postpartum health and wellbeing.
Call it whatever you want – mum brain, mummy brain, baby brain or even mum-nesia – but postpartum cognitive difficulties are real. If you’ve just given birth and can’t seem to remember the name of an actor from your favourite Korean drama or are struggling to manage your schedule, chances are you’re experiencing “mum brain”.
However, giving birth doesn’t simply make you more forgetful – it’s a lot more than that, and much of it is actually meant to help you be a better parent, experts say.
WHAT IS “MUM BRAIN”?
The “mum brain” phenomenon occurs in women who have recently delivered a baby and essentially describes their trouble with verbal recall, said Dr Charles Siow, a neurologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.
Verbal recall memory is, as its name suggests, memory associated with spoken information. This memory diminishes with pregnancy, said Dr Siow, and so women who have recently been pregnant may find it harder to recall names, words or stories.
According to Dr Cornelia Chee, who is the head of the National University Hospital’s Department of Psychological Medicine, there is “clear evidence” that a woman’s brain changes during pregnancy and after, with cognitive changes for the worse taking place during the same period.
These particular changes “probably have a lot to do with the poor sleep that pregnant and postnatal women have”.
Particularly in the third trimester, pregnant women “qualify as having a sleep disorder” due to multiple interruptions to their rest, such as discomfort, needing to go to the toilet at night and the foetus’ movements.
Postnatally, there is interruption from multiple night feeds and baby awakenings, said Dr Chee.
As a result, you may experience worsening working memory, or memory related to more recent events, and may notice symptoms like poor concentration, feeling “fuzz” and slips of the tongue – all “extremely common” among pregnant and postnatal women, she added.
THERE ARE UPSIDES
When you’re struggling to even make basic calculations in your head, it can be impossible to imagine that there may be upsides to this condition, but there are many.
First, while the symptoms are real, your worries about them impacting performance – particularly at work – may not be.
“A recent review of 20 studies assessing more than 700 pregnant and 500 non-pregnant women concluded that general cognitive functioning, memory and executive functioning were significantly poorer in pregnant women.
“However, the changes are likely to be noticeable only to the pregnant women and those close to them, and are less likely to affect job performance,” Dr Siow shared.
Secondly, the skills you fear you might have lost are actually being replaced by others that could prove more useful to you as a parent.
The changes in the brain “support the behavioural tasks of motherhood”, said Dr Siow, promoting calm and focus during stressful situations, the ability to interpret what different newborn cries mean and vigilance around potential dangers.
These changes in the mother’s brain have also been associated with better attachment and more positive opinions about her babies, as well as more confidence in her parenting ability.
Citing a recent study, Dr Siow said that changes in the brain can occur even two years after pregnancy, in regions involving social cognition or the ability to feel empathy for another.
“Mothers who showed the biggest drops in grey-matter volume reported the warmest relationships with their babies,” he said.
The changes are likely to be noticeable only to the pregnant women and those close to them, and are less likely to affect job performance.
“In other words, some subtle aspects of memory are sacrificed to enhance other areas of cognition,” Dr Siow added.
Research has also revealed long-term cognitive benefits associated with having more children.
“Elderly women with more children showed patterns of brain activity in the opposite direction to what we see in age-related decline,” said Dr Siow.
So the more children you have, the “younger” your patterns of brain function, suggesting that motherhood protects your brain from ageing, he said.
HOW YOU CAN COPE WITH MUM BRAIN
Despite the purported benefits of changes in the brain after pregnancy, any negative impact they might have on daily functions cannot be minimised.
According to Dr Nicole Chan, a general practitioner at DTAP Clinic, cognitive difficulties after giving birth can also be attributed to feelings of being overwhelmed, low mood, lack of sleep or rest, and hormonal changes.
These difficulties can improve over the course of several months, although sometimes it can “persist for longer”, said Dr Siow.
Regardless, there are steps you can take to cope. Here are our experts’ recommendations for reducing the negative impact of “mum brain”:
Get enough rest: This could mean taking power naps or working out a plan for night feeds with your partner. “Sleep deficit is a huge contributing factor to forgetfulness and impaired cognitive function,” said Dr Chan.
Feed your mind: Dr Siow recommends consuming foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, and to stimulate your brain with games like Sudoku.
Focus on the big picture and the good that you have been doing and don’t blame yourself too much for lapses.
Make lists and develop a routine: “These will help with creating predictability and structure, reducing the likelihood of forgetting something,” said Dr Chan, adding that setting alarms and reminders can also be useful.
Find a community or outlet: It could be joining a forum or a group for new mums, chatting with friends and family, or even just watching videos or sharings from others online.
“This will help foster a sense of community and normalise your struggles so you know you are not alone,” said the DTAP Clinic doctor.
Be patient with yourself: Most importantly, new mums should try to cut themselves some slack, experts agreed.
“Focus on the big picture and the good that you have been doing and don’t blame yourself too much for lapses,” said Dr Chan. “No one is infallible, and your physical and mental health matter most. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends and family or medical professionals if things get too demanding.”
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