(NEW YORK) — From “mom brain” to “mommy brain,” “momnesia,” “baby brain” and “pregnancy brain,” the terms used to describe the brain fog many moms say they experience during pregnancy and after are plentiful.
One of the terms, “baby brain,” even made it into Prince Harry’s memoir Spare as he described how the use of the term once caused a confrontation between his wife, Duchess Meghan, and his sister-in-law, Princess Kate.
Despite how common it has become for moms-to-be and moms to be subjectively thought of as scattered or forgetful, a group of scientists says the idea of “mommy brain” needs to be reexamined and rebranded.
The term, they say, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that undermines the positive changes that happen to women’s brains and cognitive abilities with motherhood.
“It’s complicated because you internalize or potentially expect to experience something like ‘mommy brain’ in a negative way,” Clare McCormack, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, told ABC News. “You might expect to experience fogginess and forgetfulness, so when an everyday moment of forgetfulness happens, there’s a label for it, it’s confirming what you thought you would see, and it can really become ingrained.”
McCormack and two colleagues, Bridget Callaghan, Ph.D., of the University of California Los Angeles, and Jodi Pawluski, Ph.D., of the University of Rennes in France, are the authors of a headline-making article published this week in JAMA Neurology titled, “It’s Time to Rebrand ‘Mommy Brain."”
“The idea that motherhood is wrought with memory deficits and is characterized by a brain that no longer functions well is scientifically just not so,” the authors write.
In addition to current research not conclusively pointing to the idea of “mommy brain,” the authors say there also has not yet been enough research done on what exactly happens to the brain with pregnancy and motherhood.
“We just don’t have enough information, unfortunately,” Pawluski, a behavioral neuroscientist and psychotherapist, told ABC News. “And this is because I think people don’t support research that’s specific to parenting or women’s health, their maternal health, and that’s a bigger issue.”
Citing studies showing that 80% of pregnant women say they experience some form of memory loss or brain fog, Pawluski added, “There are so, so many questions that need [to be] answered.”
When research does happen, according to Callaghan, it often looks only at negative performance, or cognitive impairments.
“There hasn’t really been a fair test of maternal cognitive abilities because we haven’t actually been looking for the cognitive advantages that pregnancy might pose,” said Callaghan, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA.
Callaghan, Pawluski and McCormack led their own study that looked at the impact of pregnancy on long-term memory, and found pregnant women performed better cognitively than nonpregnant women.
“This is just one example of the ways that we can kind of think critically about how we’re assessing this phenomenon of mommy brain,” Callaghan said of the study, which was published in 2021. “And when we do, we find evidence of cognitive advantages to pregnancy, which is more consistent with what we see in the animal literature.”
Callaghan said she was inspired by her own pregnancy to start researching some of the benefits of becoming a mom.
“When I looked up any symptom I had during pregnancy, it was like, ‘Your body falls apart. Your mind falls apart when you’re pregnant,"” she said. “I knew that wasn’t the case based on my own experience of pregnancy and seeing other people.”
Callaghan continued, “It’s really important as scientists, and as female scientists, that we try and set the record straight about what the experience of pregnancy and motherhood is actually like, and if female scientists aren’t going to do it, I don’t really know who is.”
All three experts spoke of a desire to “change the narrative” around the changes that come with pregnancy and motherhood, while also acknowledging the fact that the changes are big and do exist.
More recent research has shown that some of the long-lasting brain changes that happen during pregnancy appear to be as significant as the brain changes seen in adolescence, according to McCormack.
“I think of the transition to motherhood as a really important time that is actually all about adaptation,” she said. “So when we’re saying it’s time to ‘rebrand mommy brain,’ we’re really just saying it’s time to reduce focus on what is lost with motherhood, which has been the main focus for a long time, and to start paying attention more to what is gained and how it is gained.”
For example, Pawluski said moms and moms-to-be can think of how their changing brain helps them parent.
Pawluski’s research has shown that in mice, new connections in the brain develop in the postpartum period. She and other researchers have suggested that the brain’s new connections during and after pregnancy don’t necessarily come at the loss of anything else, but are simply the brain adapting to new needs, i.e. parenthood.
“We don’t want motherhood and the brain to immediately be thought of as a deficit,” she said, adding, “I mean, a pregnant person’s brain changes so that they can very quickly learn how to care for a baby because they’ve invested nine months into making it, their whole body and life has been invested into it.”
The experts also described an even more urgent reason more research is needed on brain changes during pregnancy, citing high rates of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
In the United States, around one in eight women who have given birth experience postpartum depression, a depression that occurs after having a baby, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If we take for granted that there’s this just kind of magical switch that happens when someone goes from not being a parent to being a parent, and when we don’t understand what goes on in this process, in the best of cases when it goes well, then we can’t help people effectively when they struggle,” McCormack said. “That’s one reason why it’s really important that we seriously try to understand how this process happens.”
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