Is Mom Brain Real?

Learn whether mom brain is real, what leads to mom brain, and how to help navigate the challenges of forgetfulness after you give birth.

Do you have trouble remembering where you placed your phone or keys? Are you struggling to find the right words to describe things? Or, are you forgetting items on your to-do list – after just recalling them a few minutes ago? If you’ve just welcomed a new little one, you might blame your forgetfulness or brain fog on "mom brain." But is mom brain real? 

Although "mom brain" may sound like a made-up excuse to explain away forgetfulness, it's actually a completely real condition. Scientists have found that a mom's brain goes through many significant changes after she has children. But although these changes can cause forgetfulness and brain fog, not all the changes are negative!

Today, we'll go over exactly what mom brain is, what changes happen in the brain, and advice for navigating the changes. 

Mom Brain and Forgetfulness

Scientists have found that, during pregnancy and childbirth, a mom loses gray matter in the parts of the brain that are involved in "social cognition." These areas are responsible for helping you remember the names of things.

So, if you call the washing machine the "dishwasher," or can't recall the name of an object in front of you, and you've recently given birth, the brain changes are to blame. 

What about forgetting to start tasks (or complete ones you've already started and left)? And what about blanking on how to do something, misplacing objects, or not realizing something is in front of you? This forgetfulness is likely also related to brain changes. After all, the brain's hippocampus temporarily gets smaller during pregnancy and the postpartum period, because it also loses gray matter. And the hippocampus helps you with memory and spatial processing.

All of these changes are completely normal. In fact, some of these brain changes can persist for two years after childbirth. And the changes are so predictable that computers can reliably tell the difference between brain scans of women who haven't given birth and moms who have given birth.

But along with the very real brain changes, it's natural for brain fog to happen when you're consistently running on less sleep, and have an increased load of responsibilities. It's these three factors – brain changes, stress and lack of sleep – that go hand in hand to create all the effects of mom brain.

The Positives of Mom Brain

While moms lose gray matter in certain areas, though, their brains change in other ways so they're more equipped to care for their little ones.

Gray matter increases in several different areas of the brain after you give birth, as the neuron connections (brain pathways where signals are sent) that are most needed for baby care get strengthened. 

You're already primed to devote your energy to helping your little one thrive – the positive ways your brain changes will assist you with this.

What you lose in memory, you gain in the following areas when you give birth: 

  • Positive feelings about your baby, to help you develop a close relationship with them. 
    • This is thanks to growth in brain areas known as the amygdala, hypothalamus and substantia nigra.
    •  And as one study has shown, the more drastic moms' brain changes are, the stronger the emotional attachment they have to their babies.
  • The ability to figure out what your baby's cries mean – in other words, to know the difference between a "hungry cry," a "tired cry," an "attention cry," and other cries.
  • The ability to interpret baby's other nonverbal cues.
  • A heightened ability to stay calm when things are stressful – which can also help your little one stay calm.
  • A heightened ability to sense danger and protect baby from it.
  • A heightened focus on your baby overall, including how often they're eating and how often they've wet or dirtied diapers.
  • Better decision-making skills and emotional management, thanks to growth in the prefrontal cortex.

In other words, your brain has changed so you can hyper-focus on your little one's care needs. Your brain knows that caring for your baby is extremely important, so it has adapted to help you take on this role.

Take comfort in the fact that your newborn baby doesn't need you to remember the names of lots of words, or remember where you last left your keys. They need you to protect them, soothe them, and attend to their needs. And your evolved brain is primed for those specific tasks.  You haven't lost brain power – your brain power has just shifted so you're more efficient at what matters most. 

 

How Long Does Mom Brain Last?

Every mom is different, so the exact effects (and length) of mom brain changes will vary. Studies say the effects can last for up to two years – or even longer. Keep in mind, though, that some of the negative effects will decrease as baby falls into a longer and more predictable sleep cycle (meaning you can get more sleep, too). 

But about a year after childbirth, your brain will actually emerge stronger than ever. One study found that moms have better executive control after their littlest child enters toddlerhood. That means your brain becomes better at processing lots of information and making decisions.

Tips For Navigating Mom Brain

Yes, the ultimate reasons behind mom brain are positive. It's understandable to be worried about mom brain's downsides, though – especially if you're planning on returning to work outside the home. 

You can't make mom brain go away, as the brain changes on its own. But you can adapt. Use our tips to help you navigate this time and lessen your stress.

Make lots of lists. Whether you put pen to paper, open your notes app, or set reminders on your phone or smartwatch, lists are your friend. Many moms swear by this tip for keeping track of things when they're prone to brain fog. So, list out groceries you need, people you need to call back, household and work tasks that need accomplished, and basically anything you want to remember.

Get more sleep. Yes, this one's difficult, but the better sleep you get, the better your memory and cognition will be. Not getting enough sleep can contribute to brain fog, since your brain needs rest to process information. Try these tips for getting more sleep as a new mom.

Ask for help. For instance, ask family or close friends for help with household tasks such as cooking and cleaning, or with running errands. They might even be willing to take care of baby for a few hours while you catch up on some sleep! You might also talk to other moms for tips on how they've dealt with mom brain – and for reminders that you're not alone in this experience.

Exercise body and brain. Moving your body helps brain health and lessens stress, so fitting in exercise is a good idea. But there are other ways to exercise your brain during "me time," too, which don't involve exercise and can be done in shorter timeframes. Try a crossword puzzle, a Sudoku, or a mobile game designed to help your brain (like Peak, Elevate, or any word game). 

Try brain-boosting foods. The antioxidants in foods like blueberries and broccoli, and the omega-3s in fish, can help promote overall brain health. 

Plan ahead. Preparing the items you need for the next day, and setting them in one place, may help your memory. This includes putting your keys and wallet in the same dedicated location every night, such as a hanging hook. Sticking to a daily routine may also help you, as it lessens your stress and schedule time for sleep. (But be flexible, as you may need to adapt your routine as your baby's needs change.)

Make time for you. As your responsibilities keep increasing, your need for stress relief also increases. So, be sure to give yourself some "me time" to do an activity you enjoy, where you don't have to focus on anything else. Even if it's as simple as a shower, this time will give your body and brain a break.

Don't be hard on yourself. Forgetting an important task might be the pits, but your brain changes are normal and happening for a reason. Take a deep breath and give yourself grace. When you're tempted to be hard on yourself because you forgot something, think of moments you spent with baby recently that brought you joy.

Embrace mom brain. Remember that your brain knows exactly what it's doing – it's helping you become a better caregiver and protector. Baby's health and well-being are super important, and your brain has given you new "superpowers" to help you help baby thrive.

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