'Pregnancy Brain' Myth Busted by New Study

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals

Pregnant woman

Pregnant women can no longer blame forgetfulness on "Momnesia." Credit: Getty Images

So what if you tried to brush your teeth with shampoo, can't ever seem to find your keys and haven't managed to match your socks for a week? You're eight months pregnant, and "Momnesia" is certainly to blame. Right?

Well, maybe not. Turns out that a new study from Australia denies the existence of the conditions "pregnancy brain" and "Momnesia," the mental confusion and forgetfulness that are widely believed to afflict pregnant women and new mothers.

For years, pregnancy experts such as Heidi Murkoff, author of the bestselling "What to Expect When You're Expecting," have characterized forgetfulness as a true symptom of pregnancy, alongside backaches, bloating and stretch marks.

On Murkoff's Web site, she coaches: "As usual in pregnancy, it's just your hormones having some fun, this time at the expense of your memory," and goes on to explain that brain cell volume actually decreases during the third trimester of pregnancy.

These claims are backed up by studies and reports by medical experts including Dr. Shoshanna Bennett, clinical psychologist and author of "Pregnant on Prozac," who tells PregnancyToday that "many of the mental symptoms in pregnancy come from biochemical changes in the woman's brain chemistry and endocrine system."

In an interview with WebMD, Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of "The Female Brain," explains that sleep deprivation is a contributing factor, since "women accumulate up to 700 hours of sleep debt in the first year after having a baby."

In fact, the concept of "Momnesia" -- also referred to as mommy brain, placenta brain or pregnancy amnesia -- is so widely recognized, it's referenced in a wide range of books and articles on topics such as postpartum depression and surviving your baby's first years, and was even selected as one of the 2008 "Words of the Year" by English lexicographer Susie Dent.

So how could a concept that's so commonly accepted not be true?

Published in the February issue of The British Journal of Psychiatry, the Australian study finds fault with previous studies that support the idea of "pregnancy brain," suggesting they may be flawed because they did not test subjects before they were pregnant, so they do not have a true baseline or starting point. Other studies were found to have sample sizes that were too small to be significant, or the lack of a follow-up period.

The Australian study followed 1,241 women between 1999 and 2007, and concluded there were no substantial differences in cognitive test results between women who were pregnant or were new moms, and those who were not.

"Women may have memory lapses, and change their focus to children and upcoming birth. This does not mean they have lost their capacities," Helen Christensen, Ph.D, the study's lead author and a researcher at the Australian National University of Canberra, tells WebMD.

The Australian findings echo those of a 2008 study done at the University of Sunderland in the U.K. Researcher Ros Crawley, Ph.D, tells WebMD that very little difference was found between the performance of pregnant and nonpregnant women on tests of memory and attention, and on tasks that more closely mimicked real-world situations.

Crawley clarifies that she was not saying differences are never found between the cognitive skills of pregnant and nonpregnant women, but suggests it may be that pregnant women have adopted a social stereotype that suggests they will become more forgetful and absentminded. Crawley concludes that it may be time for society to question the stereotype of "pregnancy brain."

Do you think you've suffered from episodes of Momnesia during pregnancy or early parenthood?

Related: Pregnancy: Common Concerns

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.