Is “mommy brain” normal?
A lot of new mothers have noticed the signs – looking for your phone while holding it in your hand, discovering sunglasses perched on your head after an hour of searching everywhere for them or walking into a room and forgetting why. Is it “mommy brain?” Is mommy brain even really a thing? Perinatal psychiatrist Stephanie Berg, MD, explained why mommy brain happens, what’s normal and what you need to look out for.
What is “mommy brain?”
Mommy brain is caused by cognitive changes that happen due to pregnancy and linger after birth. “Pregnancy and postpartum are a time of huge physical and hormonal shifts that can cause changes in thinking and mood,” Dr. Berg said. Whether it’s your first child or your third, having a baby is a significant life transition that impacts the family dynamic.
“Evolutionarily, our brains have been developed for changes,” Dr. Berg said. “New moms are much more vigilant because they’re having to take care of these helpless little creatures that can’t take care of themselves. We see that moms are much more in tune with nonverbal cues from their babies and other people. We also see that moms have a change in executive functioning in terms of having to multitask because they’re in charge of another person’s life in addition to their own.”
This heightened empathy and change in focus may make it seem that new moms have a decrease in memory. “It can be verbal memory, such as forgetting somebody’s name, or it could be forgetting why you went into the kitchen to get something,” Dr. Berg said. Research has shown that fathers also experience these changes.
“Mommy brain can include so many different things and there’s more and more research developing every year,” Dr. Berg said.
Mood changes are also common after giving birth
After childbirth, new moms may experience mood changes. Some will get the “baby blues,” a roughly two-week period where they’re more emotional but are functioning well, meaning they’re bonded with the baby, they’re eating, they’re sleeping when the baby sleeps, and they’re interested in learning this new person who has joined their family.
In contrast to that is postpartum depression, which includes symptoms of a major depressive episode. “They’re not interested in or bonding with the baby,” Dr. Berg explained. “They’re not able to sleep when the baby sleeps, they’re not functioning, and they’re not eating. The worst-case scenario with that is having hopelessness or suicidal thoughts, which is something that we want to monitor closely.”
Postpartum is also a high-risk time for anxiety, which can take the form of intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that don’t feel like your own, such as, what if I dropped the baby or what if I throw the baby?
“These are thoughts are terrifying to a mom as she would never act on them, but she might avoid situations that she perceives as dangerous, such going into the kitchen where the knives are, avoid carrying the baby, or avoid bathing the baby” Dr. Berg said.
Milder forms of intrusive thoughts are experienced by 90% of new parents. An example of this is being hyper focused on checking the baby overnight to make sure they’re still breathing. This is a normal, adaptive brain change that comes with being a new parent.
“As long as your thoughts are not causing lifestyle changes or impairment, then we look at them as a normal part of the postpartum,” Dr. Berg said.
How can you cope with “mommy brain” and postpartum mood changes?
If you’re struggling with forgetfulness, don’t fret. Let your brain adapt to these new changes and give yourself time to get used your new life as a parent. Also, try to get enough sleep, eat consistently, and make some time for self-care. Give yourself some grace on forgetting unimportant things when your entire life has changed to make room for a new person who needs you!
If you notice any signs of postpartum depression or if you’re not sure what you’re experiencing, reaching out to your OB/GYN is a good first step.
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