Why mothers-to-be suffer memory loss, and the scientific explanation for ‘baby brain’

The experience of a Hong Kong mother who ‘felt like I was losing control of my mind’ while pregnant bears out extensive research showing a woman’s memory is impaired both before and after giving birth

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2017, 6:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 July, 2017, 6:46am

Can pregnancy affect your memory?

The short answer: Yes

Towards the end of her pregnancy earlier this year, Lisa Ang had trouble remembering the simplest things. “I’d forget where I put my wallet and keys, for instance, or whether or not I’d switched off the iron or stove,” shares the 35-year-old teacher. “I’d also make appointments with friends, only to forget where and what time I was supposed to meet them. It was embarrassing but also frustrating, because I felt like I was losing control of my mind.”

How pregnancy changes a mother’s brain structure for as long as two years

You’ve probably come across “mumnesia” or “baby brain”, terms that have been used to describe the phenomenon of forgetfulness and foggy headedness experienced by many women during and after pregnancy. According to studies, there’s now substantial evidence to support this one-time myth.

“Baby brain is real,” says Dr Zara Chan, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology at OT&P’s Woman and Child Clinic in Hong Kong’s Central district. “Research carried out over a long period of time has shown that a woman’s memory is indeed impaired both during and after pregnancy.”

However, it is just the woman’s free recall memory that’s impaired. Her long-term or recognition memory is not. “So, for example, a pregnant woman might struggle to recall what she came into a room for or where she left her keys, but she will still remember an experience or event that happened years ago,” Dr Chan says.

I had to make note of everything, which was time consuming and drove me crazy
Clare Wu

What causes this pregnancy-induced brain fog? Simply put, the expectant mother has new priorities and more to think and worry about. With all these different stimuli, her brain has a lot more to process and recall. Fatigue and a lack of sleep exacerbate the problem, since both are associated with poor memory and loss of focus.

“The surge of the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone during pregnancy is also believed to affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, impairing how they relay messages and therefore making memory more difficult to form,” Dr Chan says. “In addition, changes in oxytocin receptors, which help promote lactation, are thought to impair memory during and after pregnancy.”

Interestingly, Dr Chan says that, compared to women who have a poor memory to begin with, women who normally pay attention to detail are less likely to suffer “mumnesia” when pregnant.

But Clare Wu, who has long been proud of her “outstanding memory”, experienced frequent bouts of forgetfulness when she was expecting her second child. The 38-year-old marketing manager says she felt like her brain had been “hijacked”. “The lapse in memory and attention worried me, and I had to make note of everything, which was time consuming and drove me crazy.”

“If your memory has always been lousy to start with and you struggle to remember everyday tasks or scheduled events, then of course you should do the practical thing and write them down,” says Dr Chan. “If you’re going grocery shopping, make a list of what you need to buy. Having such reminders will certainly make life easier and less stressful at a time when you already have so much on your plate.”

Other ways to minimise the effects of “baby brain” include getting sufficient rest. “This is a must when you’re pregnant anyway, for obvious reasons, but when you have more energy and feel refreshed, you’re likely to be mentally sharper and more focused,” Dr Chan says.

Having a supportive partner is also beneficial. They should not only accept that forgetfulness and difficulty focusing are common during pregnancy but also help you manage your tasks and give you reminders so you don’t feel so overwhelmed. Dr Chan says not to be afraid to ask your partner and family members for help if you need it.