Mom brain or baby brain

What is it and why does it happen to mothers?

Mother holding a baby and working on a laptop
A pregnant mother

What is mom brain?

Is it a myth?

Almost all mothers I have spoken to become forgetful and have a “fuzzy brain” or “brain fog” during pregnancy and when they just have their baby. It can last for months and I know that I faced this too.

This can happen for several reasons. I wanted to know more, so I spoke to my friend Katerina Koukaki, a postpartum doula, who shared her findings with me in this blog post.

Mom brain is bad!

Usually, it is meant in a negative way, like how forgetful, clumsy, too emotional etc. we become during pregnancy and after childbirth. I thought this was a myth but it is actually true, as our brain does change. 

This short article gives us a clearer picture of the brain plasticity (i.e. the ability to change).  The British psychanalyst Donald Winnicott noticed the changes that happen in a woman’s brain after she becomes a mother, it is a special mental state let’s say, where the mother is more sensitive and focused on her baby’s needs. He connected this with the term “primary maternal preoccupation”, meaning a state immediately following childbirth in which a mother becomes preoccupied with her infant to the exclusion of everything else, which permits a heightened sensitivity to the child’s needs (info found on the website of the American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/ ).

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Mother kissing and holding her baby's feet

Experiments about mom brain

Marian Diamond, a pioneer neuroscientist and a mother of four, researched how the female brain changes during the transition to motherhood. In order to clarify the changes of the human brain according to the environment we are exposed to, she decided to do an experiment and study rats.

It is very common to use male rats in all kinds of experiments and research, but Marian Diamond had the idea to do her experiment using also female rats. Specifically, she experimented with three groups of female rats: mother rats, pregnant rats and rats who were neither of those.  

So, she put rats from all three groups in two different environments: some rats were put into cages that were bare and had just the basic stuff and some other rats were put in cages that had mazes, toys, tunnels etc. In other words, the first group of rats was put in an impoverished environment, while the second group was put in an enriched environment.  The result was that the rats who were in the enriched environments, demonstrated growth in their cerebral cortex. All the rats, except those female rats who were pregnant during the time of the experiment. The brains of the pregnant rats didn’t change, they remained the same whether they were put in the bare or the enriched cages! Why did that happen? Marian Diamond found out that the reason was not because they were stupid or unable to learn or anything like that. The reason was that the brains of the pregnant rats had already changed! Why? Because their brains perceived the pregnancy as an enriched environment! Here is an article connected to this experiment: Brain Plasticity Induced by Environment and Pregnancy.

The result of that experiment helped scientists understand that the biological change of pregnancy and motherhood brings to the brain changes similar to external factors. Pregnancy and motherhood are perceived by the brain as a strong experience or exposure to an enriched environment. The difference here is that no external factors are necessary! Pregnancy and motherhood are by themselves an enrichment program. And in the end, all the changes that are happening have a purpose: they are meant to help with loving and learning. So, next time someone comments on your “baby brain”, you can just smile and use the scientific research on how Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure to reply!

The myth of the perfect mom

Mothers are traditionally expected to dedicate all their time and energy towards childcare and for many of us, also working full time. To add to that, there is a social expectation that mothers have to fulfill all their child’s needs, very intensively. In addition to household chores, managing their bodies, romantic relationships and social lives, can lead to a lot of stress and mental load. 

If you’d like to learn more about the mental load of motherhood, you can read this blog post by Little Nomad Coaching about mom guilt and the idea of the perfect mother.

Remember that having mom brain is nothing to be ashamed about, but rather nature’s way of helping new moms focus on themselves for the “healing” and their babies. One way to deal with this and make it easier on you is to have a support network – people around you so that you don’t get overwhelmed. This will allow you to get rid of some mental load and enjoy the beginning of their motherhood journey.

Katerina is a mom of two and a postpartum doula. Her mission is to support women during the beginning of their motherhood journey, offering them information, tools and knowledge that will empower them!  But most importantly, to be there with an open heart, with love and care and without judgement.

 

The Confused Mother Podcast

Do you want even more content on motherhood? Here is The Confused Mother podcast, where I talk to mothers and experts about everything related to motherhood and work. Click below to tune in on Spotify or Apple podcasts:

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