Mom friends and acquaintances often ask what I know about how having children influences thinking and memory. Phrases like “mommy brain” and “brain fog” have become part of a social response for memory issues that occur before or after having children. My children are a bit older now, 3 and 7, but I still find myself forgetting a name of someone I have met several times, or walk into a room suddenly unaware of why I am standing there. These issues are embarrassing but typical. Yet, I think we all look for answers when it comes to memory errors.
For all the moms (and other tired caregivers out there), what does current research have to say about the effects of motherhood and memory?
First – how might cognition change during pregnancy?
Findings reveal that as a whole, cognition in pregnant women is uninterrupted throughout. A review of over two decades of research found a small impairment in remembering names and words (1). A separate study on pregnant mothers and a non-pregnant comparison sample revealed that spatial skills (assessed by asking women to remember where a series of squares were presented on a computer screen) were worse at the end of pregnancy and just after giving birth (2). Wow – this seems promising! However, ask anyone who is in their last few weeks of pregnancy and/or first several weeks after birth and they might tell you more than just their vocabulary and spatial memory took a hit!
Secondly – are any cognitive changes long-lasting?
The findings here are promising too! A large sample of women described in the British Journal of Psychiatry did not show any long-term cognitive decline either four years or eight years post-partum (3).
Thirdly – does the brain physically change during pregnancy and motherhood?
Research has shown that women after pregnancy have less gray matter in their brains (4). Brain cells called neurons are covered by a fatty white-looking substance called myelin. It protects the cell and allows it to send a message quickly to other neurons. Other brain cells, glial cells, can be found near the surface of the brain. They are gray in color because they have no fatty myelin. Less gray matter was found in areas of the brain that help women socialize with others for up to two years after pregnancy. One theory is that reduced matter areas are helping assist moms in connecting with their babies – although the story isn’t complete.
Finally – what is left to learn?
This is truly the most interesting question. My brief coverage of the science leads to one strong conclusion – NOT ENOUGH RESEARCH has been done on mothers to know for sure how having children impacts the brain and cognition! The quality of the research is limited to small samples of mothers and often does not include comparison samples or samples with mothers of different race, ethnicity, or social class (5).
There is another major take away for mothers. Many caregivers are forgetful because of stress!
I would argue that stress is responsible for a large piece of the memory problems of caregivers. If you are stressed over meeting the demands of parenting, your attention is often divided between the stress you feel and the task you are trying to accomplish. You certainly cannot remember the names of people you meet on the soccer field because your attention is tuned into your lovely child playing soccer or the incessant “mom, mom, mom/dad, dad, dad) coming at your heels from a two-year old. If your attention is always split between two things, you will remember very little and you are also likely tired from the effort required to do many things at once. Spending several hours or days with increased stress can overwork your brain and your body. Overtime, your brain produces stress hormones that can disrupt body functions like thinking clearly but can lead to depression and disease.
Whenever possible focus on ONLY one thing at a time. There is no such thing as a champion multitask-er. For physical relief from stress, the Mayo clinic has great advice on how you can change your behavior. For more serious issues in parenting and stress, the American Psychological Association offers science-based parenting resources.
- Ouellette, S.J., Hampson, E. (2019). Memory and affective changes during the antepartum: A narrative review and integrative hypothesis. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 41 (1), 87-107.
- Farrar, D., Tuffnell, D., Neill, J., Scally, A. & Marshall, K. (2014). Assessment of cognitive function across pregnancy using CANTAB: A longitudinal study. Brain and Cognition, 84(1), 76-84.
- Christensen, H., Leach, L.S., Mackinnon, A. (2010). The British Journal of Psychiatry, 196 (2), 126-132.
- Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F. (2017). Nature Neuroscience 20 (2), 287-296.
- Duarte-Guterman, P., Leuner, B., Galea, L. A.M. (2019). Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 53.