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Is 'baby brain' a real medical condition?

Are you pregnant and feeling scattered or absentminded? Do you seem to forget work meetings, appointments, and even the names of your own children? If your belly is growing and your mind is not feeling as sharp as usual, you may be dealing with a brain condition called 'baby brain'.

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What is baby brain?

Have you ever dug through your purse looking for your car keys only to discover they were already in the ignition? A study showed that between 50 and 80% of pregnant women report thinking and memory problems during the nine months of gestation.

Described by pregnant women as a form of 'mumnesia', pregnancy - or baby brain - refers to the occasional forgetfulness that women experience when they’re expecting.

Mother, Lauren Wellbank, says she noticed a shift in her mental capacity almost immediately when she became pregnant for the first time. "I struggled to find words in the beginning and then towards the end of my first pregnancy, I would constantly lose my train of thought," she explains.

Ask any expectant mum if she can relate to Wellbank's experience and more than likely, she will be able to rattle off five things she forgot in the last hour alone. And while the evidence of this condition is largely anecdotal, many mums can confirm baby brain is a real thing for them.

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How does baby brain work?

You might be wondering why you're so forgetful. Maybe you’re directing more of your energy and emotions to nurture the life that is growing inside of you. Or perhaps you’re distracted by the never-ending 'to do' list that needs to be completed before the baby arrives.

But there are physical reasons too. Your brain goes through changes during pregnancy that can actually be seen on brain scans. In particular, parts of the brain connected with some cognitive processes shrink. Your grey matter (the parts of the brain where nerves connect to each other) shows changes that last until after your baby is born.

Hormones may also be to blame for 'baby brain'. High levels of progesterone and oestrogen are important for a healthy pregnancy, but often cause unwanted side-effects in the mother, especially as they act on brain function. These high levels may have a negative impact and lead to memory lapses..

One of the most obvious explanations for brain fogging is that you’re simply too tired or preoccupied with all of the responsibilities of getting ready for your new baby to come home. Wellbank says she has done everything from putting the cereal away in the refrigerator to driving all the way home from the petrol station with the petrol cap dangling off the side of the car.

Mother, Isa Down, says she remembers studying for hours and then having literally no idea about the topic because her mind was like a sieve. She remembers common, simple words were hard to think of and there were times she didn't even remember her own name!

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How to deal bouts of baby brain

Remember the saying, "If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em?" Dealing with pregnancy brain is not something you can wish away. For better or worse, many mums say these moments of forgetfulness have a way of sticking around well into the first year of their child’s life.

Wellbank says baby brain never really left her. "As I neared the third trimester of pregnancy with my second child, it became a little more noticeable and I would find myself having to write notes and keep lists of what I wanted to get done or I wouldn't be able to remember what else I was doing."

Like Wellbank, most women find they need a little extra help managing life while pregnant. Check out these "mom-tested and approved" strategies to help you cope with baby brain and make your day go a little smoother.

  • Practice mindfulness - Even if it’s only 10 minutes a day, finding a space to get quiet and focus on your thoughts and breath, will help you relax and gain clarity.

  • Simplify your life - Letting go of extra commitments is essential during pregnancy. You need to spend your time and energy on caring for yourself and your growing baby.

  • Create a reminder system - Whether it’s a wall calendar, an electronic diary in your phone, or both, transferring eveything onto it will help jog your memory when experiencing baby brain.

  • Use technology to help you stay organised - It seems like there is an app for everything, and pregnancy is no different. There are countless electronic apps and programs that can help you track appointments, input information from the doctor, and manage your “to-do” lists to help you beat baby brain.

  • Set alarms and notifications on your phone - Using the notification and alarm system on your phone can be a lifesaver during pregnancy.

  • Carry a notebook and write everything down - Buy a few small notebooks (with pens attached!) to keep in your car, your purse, and at home to record notes and ideas as they come to you. Don't forget that brilliantly unique baby name that you thought of on the way to work.

  • Exercise 30 minutes every day - Exercise may be the last thing on your to-do list, but it is probably the one activity in your day that can help baby brain the most. Getting regular exercise can help clear your head, boost your brain power, and give you the much-needed energy to make it through the day.

  • Make sure you get enough sleep - Sleep deprivation may aggravate your absentmindedness. And while it might not be possible to get quality sleep every night, it is essential to aim for as many nights of undisrupted sleep as possible to help improve your memory.

And finally, don't be afraid to ask for help. Pregnancy is not the time to show the world how strong and independent you are. If you have people in your life who are willing to help, take them up on it. Ask friends, family, your partner, and other children to help you out with day-to-day tasks - even if it's just remining you where you left your keys.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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