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Yes, mommy brain is real
Help is here. We’ve got tips for how to deal with brain fog, forgetfulness and feeling spaced out when you’re a new parent.
Have you lost your laptop only to find it hours later in the linen closet? Did you pack for a weekend away only to discover you had tops but no pants? Or maybe you spent five minutes looking for your cell phone. Then you discovered it in your back pocket.
You might blame your forgetfulness on sleepless nights and new-parent stress. But if you feel spacey and absent-minded, you could have “mommy brain.” That’s a real health problem. It includes feeling forgetful and foggy. You might also feel that you’re not as efficient as you once were.
“Mommy brain is definitely real,” says Amy Richter, MD. She’s an Optum Health obstetrician and gynecologist in Port Jefferson, New York. In fact, research has found that a new mother’s brain physically changes. And it’s mostly due to hormonal shifts during pregnancy, childbirth and nursing.1,2 Here's what happens:
- The hippocampus gets smaller.2 This part of the brain is in charge of your memory and word recall.
- The amygdala becomes larger.1 This is where emotions come from. That may be why you cry easily or feel too stressed to keep a lunch date with your friend. (If you need help coping with these big feelings, Optum has mental health support resources that can help.)
- Your prefrontal cortex gets smaller.2 This is where executive function takes place. That could be why planning is difficult and why you can’t remember the reason you walked into the kitchen.
It seems that the changes are nature’s way of helping you become a good parent. You go from being focused on yourself to being a mama bear. “You become more focused on taking care of and protecting your baby,” says Dr. Richter.
And once that change occurs, your brain doesn’t change back. A recent study looked at brain scans of mothers six years after giving birth. Even years later, the changes were still visible in the brain.3
The good news? Those lost cells correlated with a higher mom-to-child attachment. So you may not know what day it is, but you know exactly what your child needs. Mommy brain isn’t all negative, says Dr. Richter. “Our brains are getting rid of what we don’t need for those very important years of maternal attachment,” she says.
What can I do about mommy brain?
Having mommy brain is normal and natural. Still, no one wants to be the person who never remembers names or always misplaces their keys. Luckily, you can train your new brain to get around it. Dr. Richter recommends these strategies:
Ask for help. “It does take a village to raise kids,” says Dr. Richter. “Know who is in your village and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you really need it. You can’t do it all.”
Nap more. It sounds impossible, right? But even a 15-minute cat nap can help. “Your body needs rest to get back into the game,” Dr. Richter says. It’s not easy to get sleep as a new parent. But do the best you can. If you can string together three or four hours of sleep at night, you’ll feel better. And your ability to concentrate will likely improve.
Try to move more. Exercise releases endorphins. Those are hormones that make you feel happy. Exercise also offers a much-needed break. “It forces you to just focus on you and your needs at that moment. There’s nothing you can do about the rest of the world while you’re exercising,” Dr. Richter says. “Many people have moments of clarity while they’re running or taking an exercise class.”
Even if you can’t get to the gym, take your baby for a walk in the stroller. Or try a short video while they hang in their bouncy seat.
Use reminders. “You’re just not going to remember if you don’t write it down,” Dr. Richter says. Write down your to-dos, questions for your doctors, shopping lists and anything else. Or store it on a note in your phone. You can also set up digital alarms to remind yourself to do certain tasks. There’s no shame in having backup.
Eat right. You can combat mommy brain by eating healthy. Make sure you include the following brain-boosting foods:
- Fish It has omega-3 fatty acids, which support good brain health.4 You can also ask your doctor about taking a fish oil or an omega-3 supplement.
- Beans, eggs and lean meats. These foods are rich in protein and contain B vitamins that up your energy.5
- Whole-grain bread, oatmeal or sweet potatoes. These are complex carbohydrates, and they’re also nutrient-dense. They’ll keep your blood sugar levels steady. Then you won’t go through a sugar crash later in the day.6
- Leafy, dark green vegetables such as kale and spinach. They have been connected to improved memory and are helpful to the brain.
- Coffee and dark chocolate. These contain antioxidants that can get your brain cells firing. And they both have caffeine, which gives your focus a little boost. “Just don’t overdo it or you can get jittery,” says Dr. Richter.
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Set up routines. When it comes to kids, things don’t always go as planned. But establishing routines for sleep, meals, bath time and even play can help you as much as it helps them.
Play brain games. Crosswords and sudoku. Word search and solitaire. Pick your favorite puzzle. “Brain games create new neural pathways,” says Dr. Richter. And they make you feel sharper overall. Plus, the sense of completing a brain challenge can make you feel able to make decisions again.
Take care of you. Carve out time for yourself. Whether it’s a warm bath, a walk with a friend or a manicure, you’ll feel calmer afterward. And when you’re calm and connected to yourself? You can better handle whatever your parenthood has in store for you.
- Archives of Women’s Mental Health. Brain plasticity in pregnancy and the postpartum period: links to maternal caregiving and mental health. Published 2019. Accessed July 27, 2022.
- Nature Neuroscience. Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Published February 17, 2017. Accessed July 27, 2022.
- Brain Sciences. Do pregnancy-induced brain changes reverse? The brain of a mother six years after parturition. Published January 28, 2021. Accessed July 27, 2022.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Brain health and fish. Published June 16, 2022. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How much protein should I eat? Published December 15, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2022.
- American Heart Association. Carbohydrates. Published April 16, 2018. Accessed July 29, 2022.
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