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Is 'baby brain' real?

Blog post | 17 Jan 2018

Putting keys in the fridge, forgetting Aunt Edna’s birthday, pouring juice on cereal… They’re the kinds of thing you might hear of pregnant women doing – sometimes called ‘baby brain’. But is it real? 

To find out, researchers at Melbourne’s Deakin University looked at the results of 20 studies (known as a ‘meta-analysis’) which examined cognitive function in 709 pregnant women and 521 non-pregnant women. Their meta-analysis has been published in the Medical Journal of Australia

“The studies we analysed showed general cognitive functioning, memory and executive functioning [the ability to plan, focus, remember instructions] of pregnant women was significantly lower than in non-pregnant women… particularly during the third trimester of pregnancy,” says researcher Associate Professor Linda Byrne, a psychologist and neuroscientist in Deakin’s School of Psychology. 

“So that seems to confirm a lot of what we hear anecdotally where women say they start forgetting things during pregnancy – they put the car keys in the fridge or miss appointments,” she adds. 

‘No cause for concern’ 

‘Baby brain’ should not be a cause for concern, adds Associate Professor Byrne. It’s simply the result of an expectant mum preparing herself for pregnancy, which is a good thing. 

“Pregnant women have more important concerns than minor memory lapses,” she explains. “They’re growing a child and then preparing to give their full attention to caring for it.” 

The research also showed that as soon as pregnant women are required to focus, they do. “They behaved at normal levels of cognitive function,” says Associate Professor Byrne.  

Lead researcher of the study, Sasha Davies, a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology, wants to highlight that the changes seen in the study are only small. And they’re not likely to affect a woman’s ability to do her job. “While women, and perhaps their partners or immediate family members, may notice a subtle difference, it is not expected that these changes will affect an expectant mum’s work performance.”

Why is it so? 

Just why ‘baby brain’ occurs remains a mystery. “It requires a bit more research to get a clear answer,” says Ms Davies. “The reduction that we see in some areas of cognitive functioning during pregnancy could be due to a number of factors. For example, we know that pregnancy is associated with changes in sleep patterns, moods, stress levels and hormones.” 

All of these factors, she explains, have been shown to impact cognitive functioning in other groups. 

To learn more about ‘baby brain’, the Deakin researchers will continue to track women from before pregnancy, through to 12 months after birth. “This will allow us to look more closely at whether these changes are still there in the long-term, and what kind of factors might influence this,” says Ms Davies. They’re recruiting women in their first trimester and women who are currently trying for a baby. Interested in participating? Check out babybrainresearch.com

Ms Davies says pregnant women can manage symptoms of ‘baby brain’ by: 

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