When Should I Worry About...

The Mom Brain Phenomenon: Blasting the Myth of the Perfect Mom

April 19, 2023 - Patti Muck

Whether it's a first baby or the latest newborn in a growing family, women for years have complained of brain power problems tied to their pregnancies.

From short-term memory loss to outright forgetfulness, pregnancy seems to affect the brain as significantly as it does the reproductive system.

Is "Mom Brain" real?

"New mothers tell us all the time that they have uncharacteristic symptoms like frequent disorientation and trouble with focus and concentration," says Dr. Jessica Rohr, women's health director at Houston Methodist. "While 'Mom Brain' may not be an official diagnosis, it's a very real condition."

It also isn't confined to one specific period. Mom Brain's pattern of cognitive changes can be experienced during pregnancy, postpartum and while raising children.

Dr. Rohr should know. She has two toddlers, the youngest born during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she has experienced similar symptoms herself. Unrealistic — and unhealthy — societal expectations don't change with a baby in the picture, she says.

The "Perfect Mom": Motherhood's biggest myth

It still seems that mothers are expected to dedicate themselves to caring for the children and, in many cases, working full time.

Plus, today's emphasis on intensive parenting encourages mothers to handle 100% of their baby's emotional and physical needs, an all-consuming expectation in direct conflict with a balanced life and family.

"Add to these responsibilities housecleaning, chores and maintaining romantic relationships with partners — all while you're expected to look great — can make for overwhelming, impossible and unhealthy to-do lists," says Dr. Rohr.

Tasks outnumber time to complete them; the brain is overloaded; and up to 75% of new mothers are distressed they're not what they used to be and don't understand why.

What is Mom Brain?

Limited and mostly male-authored scientific research on the issue doesn't help our understanding of the condition, Dr. Rohr says. It's one of the reasons she and her community colleague Dr. Elisabeth Netherton, regional medical director of MindPath Health, offer presentations on "Cognition and the Transition to Motherhood."

The two speak to neuropsychologists who frequently hear these new mothers' complaints, and they also provide their comprehensive Mom Brain presentation to mental health practitioners, moms in their own mom groups and other lay audiences.

Why does Mom Brain happen?

Their presentation stresses the presence of actual physical factors that can cause or add to Mom Brain symptoms. Some are more than a little frightening:

  • A 2017 study reported a loss of gray matter in the social cognition brain region linked to pregnancy and sometimes lasting up to six years postpartum.

Dr. Rohr, a clinical psychologist, cautions that this is not as bad as it sounds, more a type of "synaptic pruning" that the researchers theorize is the brain's way of fine-tuning a new mother's neural networks so she is more skilled at understanding her baby's needs.

In other words, the new mother's brain is becoming more efficient at its motherhood role.

But it certainly may not feel like that to new mothers trying to navigate life as they did before pregnancy.

Dr. Rohr cites other physical factors believed to lead to Mom Brain:

1. Hormonal changes

Estrogen is protective and supportive of cognitive functioning, and it drops precipitously after birth.

2. Sleep disturbances

Sleep fragmentation (waking multiple times throughout the night) and general reduction in hours of sleep lead to persistent and profound deficits in attention, memory, impulsivity and reward system functioning, according to a study in Nature Reviews: Neuroscience.

Most sleep research reflects the impact on cognition after acute sleep disturbance. There's less laboratory data — if any — on the cognitive impact of long-term chronic sleep disturbance (like that experienced by parents).

3. Psychiatric concerns

Mental health professionals are becoming more aware of the large percentages of new moms who experience perinatal psychiatric concerns. This is not just postpartum depression, but it can include anxiety, PTSD and OCD and can actually begin during pregnancy.

Some recent studies suggest that 1 in 5 of these women would receive a mental health diagnosis, and many more are struggling, even if they would not meet the full criteria for a psychiatric disorder.

Psychiatric illness significantly impacts cognitive functioning in all areas where new mothers complain of Mom Brain.

In the clinic, Dr. Rohr and her colleagues have seen an increase in new mothers coming in wondering if they have new-onset ADHD, which is not how the condition is understood to work. To be diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms should have been present in childhood.

"But I think this demonstrates how distressing this experience can be," Dr. Rohr adds.

How to help Mom Brain

She recommends three tips to help new mothers experiencing Mom Brain symptoms.

The first is to accept the changes by celebrating the miracle of birth and learning the skills needed to care for a new life.

"Give yourself some grace," Dr. Rohr recommends.

Second, new mothers should prioritize their recoveries and allow their brains to rest, which may mean saying no and depending on support from partners and other family members.

"This means focusing on values rather than behaviors and eliminating behaviors and actions that you're doing because you think you should, not because they actually bring meaning to your or your family's life," Dr. Rohr says.

Finally, new mothers should allow themselves to be vulnerable and connect with social support to get through the hard times of mom brain and enjoy their children.

"Every woman I see thinks that something is wrong with them because people don't discuss this enough," Dr. Rohr says. "With improvements in sleep, hormone regulation after cessation of breastfeeding and treatment of psychiatric issues, Mom Brain can improve."

Stay up-to-date
By signing up, you will receive our newsletter with articles, videos, health tips and more.
Please Enter Email
Please Enter Valid Email
Categories: When Should I Worry About...