There are lots of names for it: mom brain, baby brain, momnesia… and they all point to the same problem. Lapses in short term memory, heightened emotions, insomnia and an inability to focus that seem to afflict new mothers in particular. Is it fatigue or is there more to it than that?
As it turns out, there might be more to it. Moms brains physically change postpartum and the theory is that it’s nature’s way of making sure that moms are focusing on their babies and not other things. The level of emotions that a new mom goes through does vary from person to person but most of the changes can be attributed to the hormones before and after the birth. Some of the brain changes are structural and long lasting, with some studies suggesting that the structural changes are more or less permanent.
“Researchers from the Autonomous University of Barcelona scanned the brains of a group of women before and after they gave birth, and found changes in the structure of their brains that were long-lasting, remaining for at least two years. Importantly, these changes were particular to the parts of the brain that were most active when the women were looking at pictures of their babies” (Source)
Another study looked at brains of mothers in the last two months of their pregnancy and for two months postpartum, with the use of MRIs. The study found that the volume of brain cells shrank during pregnancy, a result attributed to hormonal activity (this was also observed in women who were menstruating, though not to the same extent). The upside to this is that this particular issue seems to be time limited: brain cell volume would eventually return to normal, over time.
Is there such a thing as dad brain?
Yes, there is. A study was done where both moms and dads had brain scans while watching video of themselves interacting with their baby, in the role of primary caregiver. Both mothers and fathers experienced increased activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional processing.
So the physical act of carrying and having a baby isn’t the only trigger for what we should call ‘parent brain’. While moms do experience some physical changes, the research does seem to indicate that parents—irrespective of gender—who are actively involved in the care of their infant can have this issue. It’s a point that’s been proven by parents who have adopted children. They will also experience some of the issues of mom/parent brain, proving that there are factors beyond hormonal changes from the physical pregnancy.
What about other factors, like loss of sleep?
In addition to the structural changes that a woman’s brain endures, prenatal and postpartum, there is the added fact that a new baby means a lot more stress, feelings of being overwhelmed and sleep deprivation. Combine all of these factors and it’s no wonder that many moms, and dads, feel foggy-brained and out of sorts for months, following the birth.
Luckily, there is a way to remedy this issue: get help! Getting assistance from a postpartum doula, whether that’s nighttime care so that you can get some sleep, or infant / newborn care during the day, a little help can go a long way to alleviating the feeling of being overwhelmed by this tiny new being in your life!