Certain memory lapses like forgetting where you put your car keys or your neighbour’s name are common concerns for many pregnant woman and new moms. In fact, 50-80% of women report some degree of memory change during pregnancy.*
We don’t know exactly why some women experience momnesia or pregnant brain and research has not shown that actual cognitive deficits are occurring, which is a good thing, but it can be quite disturbing for moms and moms-to-be. From an evolutionary perspective, a theory as to why this phenomenon occurs is that it may have increased a pre-historic infant’s chance of survival (if the mother forgot about other less important details she would then be able to focus more attention on caring for the child). Starting in the second trimester up until approximately one month postpartum, women have reduced performance with certain objective memory tasks compared to their non-pregnant counterparts.* There are many theories as to what may be influencing this. The dramatic increase in sex hormones during pregnancy alters a women’s brain chemistry and her brain actually reduces in size by the end of the third trimester. But don’t worry, by six months postpartum her brain will return to normal pre-pregnancy size. Another reason for reduced memory may involve the stress hormone cortisol which decreases our capacity to remember certain details.** Whether a woman is a new mom or has other children to care for, she will have a lot on her plate in preparation of the birth to come potentially increasing her cortisol levels. Pregnant women also have an increased risk of anxiety and depression which negatively impacts memory (see this post on ways to prevent postpartum depression). It is important to discuss any concerns you may be having with your midwife or healthcare provider to rule out any mood involvement.
It’s not all bad! Studies report that during pregnancy women have an improved ability to recognize faces compared to non-pregnant women and are more alert to facial cues and changes in emotions expressed on the faces of others.*
Here are some strategies to help reduce forgetfulness during pregnancy and postpartum:
1. Write it down
Have a day planner handy or use your phone to create lists or important “to-do’s”. You may want to include questions you have for your upcoming appointments with midwife or other healthcare provider.
Place commonly used items in the same location each time. For example, keys on a hook at the door (so you don’t find them in the freezer) or your wallet on the same shelf in the same closet. If you have to remember to bring something with you, right when you think about it set it at the door with your shoes.
Simplify areas of your life by prioritizing what is most important and ask family or friends to help with the other tasks. This is particularly important if you have other children to care for or have been feeling increased fatigue or illness during pregnancy. Reduce multi-tasking if you can during this period as mistakes may be made at a higher rate.
4. Maintain great nutrition
Eating a balanced diet with lots of antioxidants is important not only for the brain development of your baby but also for your brain. If you are low in iron or anemic, this can also contribute to reduced memory. It is also important to stabilize blood sugars to reduce hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). We know that fluctuations in blood sugar can increase cortisol levels and are not healthy for the developing baby. For tips on how to stabilize blood sugar levels check out this post.
5. Consider supplementation
Many nutrients are crucially important for your developing baby including the omega 3 DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) which makes up the structural component of our brain. Consider placenta encapsulation for the postpartum period to regain nutrients important for healing and brain function (see this post for more about placenta encapsulation). Do not however use herbs or supplements without first consulting your registered healthcare provider.
We know the importance of exercise on mental health and health generally but studies also show a benefit on memory during pregnancy.*** Part of the reason for this is increased blood flow to your brain. This post discusses exercise postpartum but if you are pregnant consult your midwife or healthcare provider to determine what level of exercise is appropriate for your stage of pregnancy.
7. Get a good sleep
Sleep deprivation plus any fatigue that usually accompanies pregnancy or becoming a new parent can play a huge role in forgetfulness. read this post for more information on sleep during pregnancy, and this post for how much sleep adults should get. This post discusses when to start sleep training your baby. Also check out our baby feeding and sleep schedule to see if it's right for you.
Be gentle on yourself! You may not feel as sharp as you did prior to pregnancy but priorities change once you become pregnant (not your IQ). Having a sense of humour about any forgetfulness will reduce frustrations and take some of the pressure off. Ultimately no one is going to care that you left your keys in the freezer. If you start to notice you are forgetting things that become unsafe (i.e., forgetting to strap your child into their car seat) or have any concerns about your forgetfulness, please consult your healthcare practitioner.
* Stadtlander, L. 2013. Memory and Perceptual Changes during Pregnancy. Int J Childbirth Education 28(2): 49-53.
** Newcomer, J. et al. 1999. Decreased Memory Performance in Healthy Humans Induced by Stress-Level Cortisol Treatment. JAMA Psychiatry 56(6).
*** Lee, H. et al. 2006. Maternal swimming during pregnancy enhances short-term memory and neurogenesis in the hippocampus of rat pups. Brain and Development 28(3):147-154.