Stop calling it “mommy brain.” That’s the message from a group of researchers who published an article in JAMA Neurology Monday stating that the term, which is also known as baby brain, mom brain, momnesia and pregnancy brain, is not accurate. Despite the fact that 80% of pregnant women and postpartum women do report a degree of subjective memory loss, experts say that scientifically the idea that motherhood is in itself associated with a decline in cognitive function is both wrong and unfair to moms.
According to CNN, Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a primary care pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, says that the few studies that have attempted to investigate whether mothers actually suffer from memory loss during pregnancy and the postpartum period have failed to find significant differences in the abilities of women who have children compared with women without children.
So why do eight out of 10 women say they experience “mommy brain” while the studies don’t back it up? Bracho-Sanchez believes one reason may be that laboratory settings are peaceful places compared to home environments with a newborn. “A slip of the mind in an often overworked and sleep deprived society is promptly labeled ‘mommy brain’ by a society expecting women’s cognitive abilities to decline after having children,” she writes. Women may also use the term themselves as they cope with the impossibilities of new motherhood and it could well be a cry for help by those who don’t feel supported, says Bracho-Sanchez.
The new article says that scientists may be asking the wrong questions when they test new moms for cognitive ability. Motherhood triggers a reshaping of neural connections in women’s brains for the enormous task, says Bracho-Sanchez. When moms are included in studies that more accurately mimic the reality of their new circumstances, they perform better than women without kids. Testing mothers on parenting tasks found they showed a boost in learning and an improvement in long-term memory overall, say the authors of the JAMA Neurology article.
These types of studies that are more in tune with the real and very complex world of moms hold the most potential for a true understanding of exactly what happens to the brain when women become mothers. Some studies have shown that pregnancy results in changes to maternal physiology and the reduction of gray matter in the brain that could last for two years after childbirth.
“It’s a scary thing for people. We don’t know a lot about the brain and don’t want to think it might not go back,” said Cindy Barha, a scientist from the University of Calgary. “But it doesn’t need to go back. It should not go back because it’s changed. It’s evolved.” According to The New York Times, while new moms might have trouble recalling certain words or remembering the name of an obscure actor, there are plenty of silver linings to ways mothers’ brains change. Barha said the upside includes a heightened capacity to stay calm and focused during stressful situations, the ability to interpret what different newborn cries mean, and enhanced vigilance around potential dangers.
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