07:49 (GMT+2), Fri, 14 September 2012
Stories about women doing weird and wonderful things during their pregnancies are everywhere. Some moms-to-be have accidentally poured water instead of vinegar over their chips, and often pregnant ladies misplace their keys or forget where they've parked their cars. But is "pregnancy brain" accepted as scientific fact? Despite all the anecdotal evidence, it seems as though there's disagreement on the subject. Although it isn't seen as a threat to pregnancy, "pregnancy brain", also known as "porridge brain", "baby brain" or "momnesia", has in fact been the subject of several research studies.
What causes "pregnancy brain"?
Gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Mmaselemo Tsuari says that many physiological changes take place during pregnancy. "These changes occur because the organ systems in a woman's body adapt to pregnancy," she says. "They're partly a result of hormones secreted by the tissues in the placenta, and partly by generalised changes to the blood vessels in the body."
Mmaselemo says that although these physiological changes are well documented, text books don't mention the behavioural changes they may cause. "None of the conventional text books mention 'pregnancy or porridge brain' because forgetfulness doesn't lead to adverse pregnancy outcomes," she says.
In 2008, CNN reported that a study in Australia revealed that memory loss does occur during pregnancy, usually with unfamiliar or demanding tasks. One of the authors of the study, Dr Julie Henry, a senior lecturer at Sydney's University of New South Wales, found that attempting a more challenging task, trying to remember new information, or trying to multi-task were the types of tasks more likely to be problematic for pregnant women.
Mmaselemo adds that no-one has found a clear cause of the changes in thinking and memory during pregnancy yet, and so most medical professionals think that "pregnancy brain" is caused by the surge in hormones women experience during pregnancy. Even though there's still much debate around whether "pregnancy brain" even exists, some researchers have found a couple of intriguing facts.
The article "Effects of pregnancy on memory" mentions a study that showed that during the last trimester particularly, a pregnant woman's brain actually shrinks. Some researchers maintain it shrinks between 3–5% while others say between 4–8%. The good news is that the brain returns to its normal size a few weeks or months after birth.
A similar study at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, showed that women in their third trimester of pregnancy have 15% more memory problems than the average person. This is probably a result of the high levels of oxytocin and oestrogen in the body during the third trimester.
Despite these studies, Helen Christensen, a researcher at The Australian National University in Canberra, conducted a study that found that pregnant women performed as well as non-pregnant. She says that women may forget things from time to time and tend to focus a great deal on children and their upcoming birth, but this doesn't mean they've lost their capacity for thinking logically or remembering things.
In the first trimester, for instance, many pregnant women are distracted by thoughts about their impending motherhood or about their baby's health. On top of that, when women are newly pregnant they're exhausted and physically sick from the hormonal changes taking place in their bodies.
During the third trimester, a significant number of pregnant women may feel exhausted and overwhelmed by the prospect of becoming a mother and how it will permanently change their lives. Many women struggle to get a good night's sleep at this time, especially if their tummy is uncomfortably large or their bladder is waking them several times a night.
Sleep deprivation can make you more anxious or depressed, and a lack of sleep also affects memory. So it's possible that a variety of factors contribute to memory loss in the third trimester. In fact, the Wayne State University study also found levels of anxiety and depression peaked during the third trimester of pregnancy.
Another possible cause of changes in memory is a deficiency of iron in the body – it's known that one of the common effects of iron deficiency or anaemia is forgetfulness. From around the twelfth week of pregnancy, a baby consumes a great deal of Mom's iron reserves.
What can you do about 'pregnancy brain'?
By Ruth Rehbokpregnancy, pregnancy brain, momnesia, baby brain, Ruth Rehbok
- Learn to laugh at yourself. Get your partner to see the lighter side of pregnancy too.
- Take your pregnancy vitamins, especially omega-3 oils, and iron supplements. Make lists and stick post-its wherever you need them or use a high-tech helper like a Blackberry, cell phone diary or laptop to remind you about the things you need to do.
- Simplify your life and delegate as much as you can. This way, you'll have fewer things to remember or worry about.
- Try to remember things you've learnt recently or teach yourself something new.
- Use mnemonics, or methods of memory association, as a way to remember things. It may be easier to remember your tasks for the week, for example, if you associate them with things such as a short poem, a special word or picture, or an acronym that's easy to remember.