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Pregnancy Brain

By Mel Lefebvre & Lydia Christine Zilahy

pregnancy brainEver had that nightmare where the teacher calls on you to write on the board, and once you’re standing at the front of the class, you realize you don’t have any pants on? Well, this one woman we know did a grownup version of that in real-life.

Standing at her car after buckling in her toddler on her way to work, she was feeling around for something in her pocket when it struck her that her bright red holiday-themed underwear, complete with a ‘ho ho ho!’ and a North Pole postage stamp on her rump was all that was between her bare skin and the world around her. That woman is co-author of this article, and that day she was suffering from a serious case of baby-brain.

Being pregnant is a bit like being in a secret club, only you’re on your own for the initiation. No one tells you that you kind of lose your marbles. “I think it shocks every mom to learn that you may forget to wear your shoes to work,” says Shannon Seip, author of Momnesia! A Humorous Guide to Surviving Your Post-Baby Brain. “I also forgot to put the emergency brake on and my car rolled down into my bushes and I thought, what happened to me? I used to be a smart person!” says Seip, also the mother of two young boys.

Most of us will admit to feeling a bit more scatterbrained while the miracle of life blossoms in our womb. We forget things here and there. No big deal, right? Let us be the ones to welcome you to the baby-brain club. The club where an ease into sleep deprivation and not being on the ball, or even knowing where the ball is, are your new normal right alongside spider veins, stretch marks, and sore boobs. Baby-brain won’t cause long-term cerebral damage, but it will occasionally make you want to commit yourself.

Ignorance may be bliss for one of the more comically disastrous side effects of gestating, but while you still have your wits about you, get thee a notebook.

Maybe a whole stack, actually. And while you are at it, buy a mountain of sticky notes. As a novice to this club, your first assignment is to write out in multiple, in huge letters, ‘you are not crazy’ and begin decorating your house, your car, your office, and even your partner with these and other little reminders to help navigate your day. Why? Well, there are reasons why a pregnant woman might be on the forgetful side, apart from the fact that everything that goes into making a baby can mentally and physically bankrupt you. “There’s just a lot going on, especially with a first-born where the learning curve for a new mom is so sharp. You’re emotional, forgetful, and full of hormones. It’s a rough time,” says Seip. It is baby boot camp. All factors combined might make a pregnant woman feel like she’s losing her grip on reality.

Still think these horror stories only happen to a handful of people and that most pregnant women glow like those on magazine covers? Hate to tell you, it is fact, not fiction.

According to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine, during pregnancy, “the body grows, and the brain shrinks—about six percent. The female brain is different from the male brain to ensure the survival of those who cannot take care of themselves. We aren’t antelope, we don’t just drop the baby and run.” Far from being antelope, take us, for example. Mel Lefebvre, mom to Corin, and Lydia Zilahy, mom to Bianca. Between the two of us, we’ve had five pregnancies. That’s five immense hormonal, physiological, physical, and emotional upheavals that have resulted in pants-less errands, leaving behind expensive equipment after covering events for work, forgetting how to spell (which, for two writers, is just a little more than embarrassing), not being able to form proper sentences while speaking and confusing our conversation partner, inducing much palm-to- forehead slapping once we realize that we don’t sound like the sophisticated, educated women we set out to be.

Thankfully, we have each other. Just when we thought we had finally crossed that line from being cute, quirky pregnant ladies to having completely lost it, we discovered we weren’t alone with our addled brains and abandoned thoughts. Though, comically and quite fittingly, many women have told us that while they did experience forgetfulness and memory loss, they can’t remember the details. And since baby sweeps us off our feet and takes center stage once the baby arrives, we don’t end up talking about memory loss. Toss into that mix a couple of studies that declared pregnancy brain a myth, and it can muddy-up an already foggy horizon. Whether it’s scientifically proven or disqualified as a real phenomenon, we can confirm that during pregnancy and the time that follows, it’s quite common, to, uh, forget things.

“I started forgetting stuff like crazy when I was pregnant, and I still can’t remember any of it,” says Madeleine Coyler, a Canadian four-time pregnancy-brain survivor and mother of three who lives in Saint Lazarre, a small town just outside the bustling city of Montreal, Quebec.

Like many of us, Coyler has packed up and left the house with her list of chores and a lack of focus so typical of members in club baby brain. “I will admit that I have, on more than one pregnant occasion, left my apartment, walked down to the parking garage, and driven halfway to work before realizing I was still in my fuzzy bedroom slippers,” says Coyler.

“My brain is mush,” says Sylvia Kroll, a Montreal resident and mother of two who has undergone three rounds of pregnancy brain. “Names and numbers have gotten ten times worse for me. I forgot my child’s name once, and I think I forgot my husband’s name at one point. He was ‘that guy there—you know!’ I even called my dad Babe once. When you’re pregnant, you get away with everything,” she says.

While rolling with the waves of memory loss can be entertaining at times, it can also be disconcerting for moms-to-be. “It is funny, and scary how much you lose,” says Kroll. As much as we’d love to kick our feet up for nine months and spend the time relaxing and snacking our temporary amnesia away, our attention is stretched to cover responsibilities at work and home. Inevitably, some things get neglected. “I couldn’t remember to open the mail for almost three weeks. Those things kinda fall by the wayside. I mean, really, it’s not as important as keeping your baby alive,” says Seip.

There’s a lot of pressure for women to feel like they can handle pregnancy with super-human grace and poise with perfectly packaged bumps, flowing hair and a glowing complexion. Donning our Superwoman persona and cape, we juggle pregnancy, careers, possibly other children, spouses, family, social engagements, fitness, and other exhausting ambitions. All the while, we have less energy, are sleeping less, battling pants, socks, and shoes with a growing midsection, and we’re less alert, always hungry, probably nauseous, and just want to curl up on the sofa with a bag of popcorn, some ice cream, and nap in front of a movie until baby arrives.

Lara Onaba, mother of Denzel from Peace River, Alberta, wasn’t sure if she suffered from any kind of mind-altering pregnancy silliness. But she put her finger on a contributing factor that made her realize there was something going on in the ‘ol noggin. According to Onaba, “I forgot less after Denzel was born. I think this was because my sole focus was no longer my body. When I was pregnant, I was hungry 24/7, and one day I was so tired I actually just sat down in an aisle at Wal-Mart. I found that I could use my energy to think more when I wasn’t so hungry!”

What Onaba expressed is something quite normal during pregnancy, and is what Dr. Brizendine, who is also best-selling author of The Female Brain and founder of The Women’s Mood and a Hormone Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, says is a gentle shut down, catapulting the mom-to-be’s brain and body into a symbiotic state that takes care of the growing fetus. “High levels of progesterone kick in nesting instincts. The growing fetus in pregnancy wants your energy. The body is either turned on or turned off by hormones. Hormones are responsible for a behavior necessary for survival. Now, we don’t want Mommy using her energy to be as active—we want Mommy to eat, sleep, and rest. It is not about Mom becoming ‘stupider.’

The behavior the hormones create is anti-activity.”

The toll a growing human takes on our bodies alone is enough to preoccupy our thoughts and energy, and it’s supposed to. The idea that women feel they have to do it all while constantly needing to eat, pee, and chase sleep while growing a baby and saying goodbye to a life of non-motherhood or taking care of another child out of the womb at the same time is completely ridiculous. The unfortunate reality is that many feel the need to keep up our pre-pregnancy standards of living. Any other effort is substandard and reactions to having an off day (or month) are unforgiving. And women’s harshest critics are most often themselves.

“It’s a weird thing, prego-brain,” says Calgary resident Katharine Barrette, librarian and new mom of Audrey. “In a way, it made me really defensive if I forgot something that, say, people at work noticed. I’d feel I was being accused of being a weak woman in a weakened state, whereas if a male colleague forgot something, even if he was distracted by a personal situation, you would never hear anyone joke about ‘dating brain,’ or ‘divorce brain.’ It was annoying to be thought of as incapable,” says Barrette.

If we’re going to be superheroes while pregnant, arming ourselves with knowledge and facts might help us survive the nine months between conception and delivery. Shifting priorities and modifying standards might help ease the pressure of perfection. So will claiming some emotional and mental space for what is, truly, an incredible physical feat. “Set your expectations really low and focus on the things you did achieve,” says Seip.

In addition to having a whole new human growing inside you, your body produces a new organ, the placenta, de- signed to sustain your baby’s life. We need to make some concessions in needing some breathing room, and compassion for attention that is directed to the space between your ribcage and pelvic bone. With that in mind, the fumbles of pregnancy brain, like showing up to work in pajama pants, forgetting documents and meetings, or even your spouse’s name, are really not that significant.

So, relax a little. It isn’t you. Really. It’s your biology. There is an explanation for the physical changes we go through while growing our wee ones.

Part of that change happens in our brains, as Dr. Brizendine’s impressive six percent brain shrinkage statistic says, and there’s little many women can do to avoid momnesia. If anyone gives us a hard time, slap them with this bit of science and stand proud, perhaps in fuzzy bunny slippers, in the office, all the while having no idea where you put your glasses (they’re around your neck) or that important luncheon you’re missing as you dish out some prego justice.

During pregnancy, the blood flow to your brain changes. “Our blood actually gets shunted away from the forebrain to- wards the hindbrain. Our forebrain is where our short-term memory is and multitasking takes place. And the hind-brain takes care of the survival basics. We actually see on brain scans that the blood moves to the back of our brain,” says Paola DeCicco, a Montreal-based naturopathic doctor and mom to Alice. “Some studies show the brain does shrink, and others show that it doesn’t, but to me, it’s a no-brainer. Excuse the pun. It’s one of those things where your faculties are needed elsewhere. We channel our reserves into focusing on maximizing our energy on this new creature. All of that other information, like remembering phone numbers, remembering to pick up the bread, become secondary,” says DeCicco, whose private practice involves a lot of perinatal care and fertility work. A study by Diane Farrar and associates, published in the journal Endocrine Abstracts, confirms that pregnancy affects a woman’s spatial ability, or in other words, remembering where we put the darned car keys.

What does take our immediate attention are multiple trips to the bathroom at night, feeling our baby move while our center of gravity changes, cooing at ultra-sound pictures, and managing some basic functionality as our bodies adapt to being the mothership for at least one tiny passenger. If that doesn’t rip the super-hero cape right off your shoulders, don’t worry: there are still leg cramps, and needing extra support to haul your belly to turn over in bed as discomfort takes over where comfort left off.

Many pregnant women admit to being wide awake at four in the morning for weeks on end for no apparent reason. One prego-braniac says she took advantage of that time to make lists of the restaurants where she craved a meal and another just gave up and took to snacking on the couch in front of a movie in her last months of pregnancy before getting ready for work. Sleep deprivation is a tactic used by the military to prepare soldiers for battle at any time, yet it is something pregnant women and new parents must endure that is shrugged off as just part of the experience with the expectation that life can go on as normal throughout pre- and post-child living. “There is the theory that the sleep deprivation that happens during pregnancy is prep to get you used to it. By starting to change your cycle, it’s not as much of a shock when the baby actually comes,” says DeCicco.

In their book, Woman’s Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night’s Rest, authors Dr. Joyce A. Walsleben and Rita Baron-Faust give the astounding statistic that after the first year of birth, women accumulate between 450-700 hours of lost sleep. “That affects memory hugely,” says DeCicco. Chronic sleep deprivation of that magnitude catapults us into survival mode. “Your body’s chemistry has perceived that you’re under a large amount of stress. That kicks off a whole hormonal cascade and puts us into a fight or flight mode,” DeCicco explains. The hormones at work here are our body’s big-league players. Estrogen fiddles with emotions while improving blood flow to the uterus and is responsible for breast tenderness; human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) produces progesterone and estrogen until the placenta takes over; relaxin helps your uterus expand and is also to blame for your chronic heartburn because, as it’s fittingly named, it relaxes your internal passageways, from your esophagus to your bum; progesterone makes sure your egg stays safely implanted in the womb, and finally, oxytocin, the love hormone, is responsible in large part for our nesting behavior. “Take the word progesterone—’progesterone’—it is what keeps the pregnancy intact,” says Dr. Brizendine. Even our brain’s neurotransmitters take a hit. It’s like getting a whole new body for almost one year. “No one’s clearly identified the cause, but the phenomenon clearly exists and it’s obviously a hormonal component,” says DeCicco. With all of that in play, no wonder our brains feel a bit less tightly screwed.

Not everyone is so convinced that baby brain exists. More specifically, that any real and long-lasting changes happen to the brain, and that a pregnant woman’s cognitive abilities are any less than their non-pregnant counterparts. One study, published in 2012 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, ran multiple tests for cognitive speed, working memory, immediate and delayed recall on groups of pregnant and non-pregnant women and found that there were negligible to no differences in mental performance, dismantling what they refer to as the pregnancy brain myth.

Well, Helen Christensen and colleagues who published these findings under the title Cognition in pregnancy and motherhood: prospective cohort study, could be right, but that doesn’t make us feel very good at all. “I have no excuse, then, for what happened to me. It makes you feel worse!” says Seip. “Certainly, the word on the street is that momnesia is real,” she said.

In their concluding remarks, Christensen and colleagues state that memory loss during pregnancy is not inevitable, and may be attributed to all the other stuff that’s going on. “Perceptions of impairment may reflect emotional or unknown factors,” they say. “Women may have memory lapses, and change their focus to children and upcoming birth. This does not mean they have lost their capacities,” Christensen told WebMD soon after publishing her study. In a totally empowering finale, Christensen and colleagues state, “Not so long ago pregnancy was ‘confinement’ and motherhood meant the end of career aspirations. Our results challenge the view that mothers are anything other than the intellectual peers of their contemporaries.” And to that, we say heck, yes. That and, every woman is different. Some women declined being interviewed for our article because they never experienced any goofs or lapses in memory during pregnancy. They kept their pants on, remembered their children’s and spouse’s names, and never missed an important anything, ever.

Back in club pregnancy-brain’s corner, Dr. Brizendine supports the existence of placenta brain and armed us with the perfect defense. “During pregnancy, the brain actually shrinks—no one really knows why. There are many hypotheses. One is that there are all kinds of lipids and fats that live in the brain and that the baby takes what it needs—literally eating your brain. There is a cognition change that happens so that you walk into a room and forget what you went in there for in the first place—what we call the working memory. The change happens to the main function of the hippocampus, the area of the brain most sensitive to estrogen and progesterone. In the first few weeks of pregnancy, estrogen levels rise by about 30-40 times and progesterone up to 100.”

Whether or not your mind gets a little cloudy during your gestational period, some basic common sense can help make this time less stressful on your body. A mom herself, DeCicco knows that a little self-care is a big thing. “I definitely experienced firsthand the lack of focus and sharpness, and plenty of sleep deprivation for a good 18 months. I used Post-it notes to help in this time. My daughter is wonderful, but she was never interested in sleeping, and was exclusively breastfed. It takes a big toll,” says DeCicco. If left exhausted and drained, both Mom and baby are likely to be the worst for wear. The solution is to simply slow down and do less. “The baby, the pregnancy, and you want the calmer, lower-activity Mom. Mother Nature intended for you to really take good care of yourself. This is just the first step to parenthood, so get ready. Consider this Mother Nature’s training wheels,” says Dr. Brizendine. DeCicco strongly encourages pacing yourself with your new, pregnant body. “Like I say to Moms of any age who have that martyr syndrome, if you don’t take care of yourself, it’s your kids and family who suffer. You need to be the priority. You need to be the best that you can be so that everybody else around you who depends on you can benefit and be as good as they can be.”

Common sense can go a long way to helping women pre- and post-baby. Eating healthily and taking naps are two things women can do to manage their exhausted bodies and minds. “There are a lot of nutrients that are incredibly important and can affect brain chemistry and our ability to multitask. Iron and vitamin B12 are part of regular OBGYN screening, but very often, they’re low and patients are not told because it’s not a priority,” says DeCicco. A woman doesn’t need to test positive for anemia for low levels of iron to have serious effects on well being. Low iron levels cause sleepiness, yawning, breathlessness, and other signs of fatigue, which are also a pregnant lady’s constant companions. As a major transporter of oxygen, iron helps with mental focus and helps maintain steady energy levels. So from our willingness to get up off the sofa and go for a walk to basic cellular metabolism, iron, which we get from meats, some dried fruits, nuts, and dark leafy veggies, and B12 supplements, can be a hefty and almost easy fix for a bad case of prego-brain.

Another easy intervention is omega 3 fish oil. “It helps with Mom’s cognitive function, postpartum depression, and with the development of your little one’s brain and nervous system,” says DeCicco. It also helps to have a healthy breakfast with at least 16 grams of protein to start your day. A high-quality protein powder, one containing split peas (which have the highest protein content per serving of almost any protein source) can supplement the bowl of frosted sugar crunch you absolutely must have in the mornings. While pregnant, your metabolic demands are much higher, and we burn through food at a much quicker rate than our non-pregnant counterparts. It’s important to sustain yourself to avoid crashing, feeling irritable and anxious. Getting the blood flowing to the brain will help with baby brain by getting the oxygen moving. Mild exercise can help your mind focus, too. So take a walk, a swim, or find a prenatal yoga class to blow off some steam and bring your mind back to you and the baby.

In addition to taking it easy and napping when you can, one of the problems with baby brain is that pregnancy tends to be so focused on the baby. Any aches, complaints, or stresses Mom feels tend to be met with harsh criticism. Suck it up; this is all part of being pregnant; deal with it; and, what did you expect is some of the helpful advice a few women said they were given, inducing in us a knee-jerk reaction to reach for our super- woman outfit. What could help, actually, is to keep a notebook handy to jot things down so they don’t escape your addled brain. Carry, along with your notebook, an attitude check. If no one perished and the world as we know it did not end, go easy on yourself. For example, if you forget to pick up the bread, so what? A two-person-in-one mom machine’s sanity trumps a grocery list any day. Rather than throwing your arms up in frustration at your misplaced keys, glasses, or wallet, take a deep breath and let yourself be the princess you are, if only until baby arrives. This is your time. Chill out and let yourself be pregnant. In our society, brides seem to be allotted this ‘princess for a day’ mentality. You are pregnant. Guess what? In our club, you just became a princess for nine months.

It’s soothing to repeat Dr. DeCicco’s basic advice. Let yourself be pregnant, and roll with the expected and unexpected effects your body brings you during pregnancy. Work-related performance pressure aside, allow yourself to go with the flow, rather than just sucking it up and hiding our distress beneath super-woman garb. Throw the cape out. The world will keep spinning while you take some mental breaks to ease into fatigue, so don’t take on that extra project, and stay in on the weekend, hiding from social engagements now and then. And ask for help to manage your workload in the office and at home. You might gasp because Wonder Woman would never do such a thing, but guess what? She’s fictional, as is her uterus.

Authors’ Note: If you were reading this article and wondering why the numbers didn’t add up for pregnancies and children, we do count miscarriages and other losses as experiences in pregnancy. Our children, whether they walk with us or rest in peace, are a big part of our lives and we didn’t want to exclude them.

Mel Lefebvre is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Montreal Families Magazine, Montreal Gazette, Your Local Journal, Atlantic Salmon Journal, and the David Suzuki Foundation. She lives in Montreal, Quebec with her husband, son, stepson, bunnies, and cats, and still wonders what she will be when she grows up.

Lydia Christine Zilahy grew up in Montreal, Quebec. Losing a bet brought her to rural, northern Alberta where she got married, adopted an army of pets, and had the wonder of her life, a daughter named Bianca, and two angel babies. 

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