Everyone has heard about the most common symptoms of pregnancy: morning sickness, stretch marks and heartburn. But a lot pregnant women wonder about another symptom that is more awkward to discuss: the state of their minds.
Many expectant moms become anxious, simply because they can’t think clearly. Women report that they can’t find their car keys, don’t always remember their husband’s name, forget appointments and constantly blank out about why they walked into a room. This is called pregnancy brain, placenta brain, momnesia, and even porridge brain in the UK. It is a frequent complaint; yet, until recently, the medical community didn’t address it seriously, even though anywhere from 12 to 80 percent of pregnant women report mental fogginess.
Recent research proves that pregnancy brain is a real phenomenon and has nothing to do with lack of sleep, anxiety or sadness.
Basically, pregnant women show impairments in some — but not all — forms of memory, and it happens most severely in the third trimester. It appears that the more demanding the task, the more memory can be impacted. And it tends to worsen with each subsequent pregnancy. It has been observed in animals as well, so it’s not a social issue. But why does this happen, when one’s normal to-do list is crammed with dozens of baby-preparatory chores? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the brain to expand its abilities at this crucial time?
Apparently, the brain knows what it’s doing, since, in fact, pregnant women are better at certain tasks than during non-pregnancy. Pregnancy brings with it improved social cognition, which means a
better ability to recognize threats — both physical and emotional — and an improved ability to bond with others. Pregnant women are simply more vigilant to anything that might cause harm to them or to their babies. For example, pregnant women drive more carefully and are less likely to be in car accidents.
Knowing that you aren’t crazy, that in fact your inability to remember your own cell phone number is your mind’s way of helping you drive more carefully, might be marginally helpful. But what else can you do to not embarrass yourself until after you deliver, when in fact your brain will begin to function properly again?
I know you are sick of hearing that exercise is a cure-all for everything, but in this case it just well might be. At least for rats. A recent study in the journal Physiological Behavior showed that pregnant rats that swam had the same memory abilities as non-pregnant rats; swimming actually improved brain cell growth, which normally decreases during pregnancy. So if you are bothered by forgetfulness, take a walk, go for a swim, get your body moving and your heart beating faster.
• Write everything down.
Even though you only have three things to pick up at the grocery store, jot down your list before you go. Put a bright-colored sticky on your bathroom mirror to remind you to take your prenatal vitamin; put a note on your steering wheel telling you the date and time of your next healthcare provider appointment; and keep pads of paper and pens around your home and workspace to make it easier to get reminders in writing.
• Use technology to your advantage.
When you make an appointment, program in a reminder. Set alarms for meetings. Keep lists on your phone with reminders for when things are due.
• Simplify your life as much as you can.
Separate your to-do list (written down, of course) into the have-to-dos (such as buying a car seat) versus the would-like-to-dos (such as finding accent pillows for the nursery).
• Share your concerns about your pregnancy.
Talk to your partner, your mother, your sister, your best friend or your favorite co-worker. Feeling reassured about the normality of your symptoms will reduce your sense of vigilance, and might allow your brain more space to function in more of a pre-pregnancy fashion.
Most of all, be aware that placenta brain, like pregnancy, is a temporary condition. You will get your mind — and your waist! — back, eventually.
Alice D. Domar, PhD, is executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/ Body Health and an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School. She is the author or co-author of six books, including Live a Little.