From forgetfulness to fogginess, 'mom brain' is surprisingly common — and frustrating

Mom brain represented by an overwhelmed mother with a swirling mobile over her head
Mom brain is a common and frustrating problem many new mothers face. (Photos: Getty Images; design and animation: Victoria Ellis)

“Mom brain” isn’t a medically recognized condition, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

“Up to 75% of mothers report symptoms consistent with mom brain,” psychologist Jessica Combs Rohr, director of women’s mental health at Houston Methodist Hospital and mother of two toddlers who has experienced mom brain herself, tells Yahoo Life. “Because it isn’t a medically recognized condition, many moms are left trying to figure out what’s going on with them.”

Mom brain is “used to describe the pattern of cognitive changes women often experience during pregnancy, postpartum and while raising children,” Rohr explains. This includes short-term memory loss, feeling disorientated and having problems concentrating or trouble paying attention, she says. “It can be very distressing for mothers who feel like they are having trouble functioning the same way they were before.”

Dr. Katrina Furey, a psychiatrist with Yale School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that pregnancy brain, mom brain and momnesia are all “terms used in our culture to describe a wide array of experiences including increased forgetfulness, fogginess, memory difficulties, impaired concentration, feeling more easily overwhelmed and feeling more easily moved to tears that some women experience in the context of pregnancy or after having children.”

Even though it’s not an official medical condition, Furey says, “It is dangerous to brush off women’s cognitive struggles.”

"I'm not as quick on my feet"

Mom Kelsey Lawrence says that after experiencing forgetfulness and lack of focus and feeling overwhelmed in the weeks after giving birth, she “knew that mom brain was a real thing.”

Lawrence hoped things would get better once her baby started sleeping through the night, but that didn’t happen. “It has just lasted longer than I expected,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I thought mom brain would go away once I was finally getting a good night's sleep and no longer learning every little thing I needed to do to take care of a newborn baby. I thought it was more attributed to a lack of sleep and an overload of information. Turns out, that's only part of it.”

Despite the struggles, Lawrence has found a way to make things work, with a lot of support from two friends who have had mom brain themselves. “I feel like I've really got it together as far as our routine goes. But I'm still noticing that I'm not as quick on my feet and I don't have the same attention to detail or ability to multitask that I've always prided myself on.”

For mom Stephanie Dozier, it was her husband who noticed that she was having signs of mom brain during her first pregnancy. “No pregnant woman wants to be told that she's forgetting things or isn't at her mental best, no matter how true that may be,” Dozier tells Yahoo Life.

During Dozier’s second pregnancy, however, she became more aware of the signs. Dozier remembers going to the hospital for a birthing class on the wrong day. Another time, she frantically searched a restaurant for her lost wedding ring — only to discover later that she had not worn it out. After giving birth, Dozier’s mom brain moments continued. Once, she sent her daughter to day care with bottles that were leaking because she had forgotten to insert an essential piece. “I cried at the office when the day care called to tell me,” she says.

Dozier, who was a brand director for a Fortune 200 corporation, says, “I had a reputation that if I said something with confidence, one could assume that I was correct. So it was a real blow to my confidence to realize that I was forgetting things, and it was something that I tried hard to minimize at work and not to draw attention to.”

What causes mom brain?

Several factors contribute to mom brain. Rohr says that pregnancy leads to the loss of gray matter in a region of the brain. Although the loss of gray matter sounds scary, Rohr says that researchers believe this is “the brain’s way of fine-tuning important neural networks to make them as efficient as possible” to make a new mother “more skilled at understanding her baby’s needs, rather than actually impacting her cognitive functioning.” These changes can persist for six years or more, Rohr says.

Hormonal changes associated with pregnancy is another contributing factor, explains Furey. The hormones cortisol, prolactin, progesterone and estradiol are all impacted during pregnancy and “affect brain chemistry and neural architecture,” she explains.

“Estrogen is protective and supportive of cognitive functioning, and it drops precipitously after a baby is born,” Rohr says. Oxytocin can also affect short-term memory during and after birth, Furey says. She explains that oxytocin helps women cope with labor pains and may cause women to have “selective amnesia” to help them forget the pain of childbirth. But this short-term memory loss may persist after birth.

Moreover, during pregnancy, the body must “reset,” Dr. LaTasha Perkins, family physician and assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University, tells Yahoo Life. If a mother is breastfeeding, it takes energy to produce milk. “When blood flow goes to other places outside the brain, that will cause a slower functioning capacity of the brain,” Perkins says.

Most new mothers experience sleep fragmentation, because their baby wakes them up multiple times a night, and a general lack of sleep overall, leading to “persistent and profound deficits in attention and memory,” says Rohr.

Societal expectations of mothers also play a role. “Mothers, especially in America, are expected to excel in multiple domains — child care, work, housekeeping, romantic relationships, friendships, appearance,” Rohr says. She adds that “paid parental leave is not federally mandated, so many women return to work very soon after having a baby, while dealing with all of the above issues, and they are expected to maintain pre-pregnancy levels of functioning.”

Mothers are also expected to engage in “intensive parenting,” focusing all their attention on their baby, which leaves little time for themselves, she says. “We have limited resources in our bodies and our brains, and cognition will suffer when we are attempting to do too many things,” Rohr points out.

"It felt like my mind was betraying me"

But even understanding why you’re experiencing mom brain doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. “You're trying to do everything you would normally do, and on top of that, all the things required to keep your little bundle alive and thriving,” Dozier says. “It's too much to keep track of, and if you're running on fumes without adequate rest or fuel, something's going to slip.”

Dozier says that dealing with mom brain “made me angry,” adding: “In a way, it felt like my mind was betraying me. After sacrificing my body and physical health to the growing of my child, now my mind wasn't working at full capacity as well.”

Mom Emily Kucharski was also caught off guard by her mom brain symptoms. Before having a baby, Kucharski was regional business director at a top advertising agency, where she “successfully led multidiscipline and international teams to deliver high-profile projects against multimillion-dollar budgets,” she tells Yahoo Life. Kucharski’s ability to multitask, task-switch and adapt quickly was her “super strength,” she says. But after having a baby, things changed.

“It took me by surprise to find myself feeling anxious and out of control about seemingly mundane and small everyday tasks,” she says. “Preparing to leave the house with my baby also felt like a huge task.” Kucharski adds that “the overall feeling of mental exhaustion and fogginess definitely chipped away at my self-esteem, and I regularly only had the energy to do what felt 'essential.'”

For mom Kelsey Gilliland, the forgetfulness that goes hand in hand with mom brain can feel a bit scary at times. Gilliland says she has gone to put a bib on her baby before feeding her — only to realize the baby already has one on. Sometimes she stands in the middle of the kitchen “completely forgetting” why she was there. “Most of the time having experiences like this scare me slightly,” Gilliland tells Yahoo Life. “I think, ‘Am I going crazy? Do I have early dementia?’”

Gilliland says she is good at “rationalizing those thoughts away” by telling herself "it's OK. I am a tired mom with a toddler and infant. I'm going to forget things from time to time." However, she says that mom brain causes her anxiety, especially on days when she is particularly exhausted. “It worries me that I might have something else wrong with me,” she shares.

Experts say that in most cases, mom brain isn’t a sign of something serious. But, says Perkins, “Postpartum depression is a reality. If you also develop symptoms like depression, irritability, suicidal ideations or disconnection from your child, you might be developing postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety.”

Perkins says that “it’s also important to notice if pain is associated with your mom brain symptoms,” including headaches or body aches. “Things like that are reasons to see your family physician. It’s important to make sure it’s not more than mom brain — that it’s not another diagnosis developing.”

What can moms do to help combat mom brain?

Because mom brain is not a medically recognized condition, there are no specific diagnostic criteria or treatment recommendations, according to Furey. But there are things moms can do to cope.

Rohr says the first step is for moms to give themselves grace. “Understand that the changes make sense,” given the brain and hormonal changes that come with pregnancy, in addition to the societal pressures put on moms. “I hear so much frustration, disappointment and shame around these brain changes when really they make sense given everything that has changed in a mom’s life,” she says.

Rohr recommends that new moms prioritize their own recovery, including resting and taking some time for themselves whenever possible, as well as “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.”

Connecting with other new moms helps too. “Almost all of the women I see in my practice are struggling with these issues,” Rohr says. “Every woman I see thinks that something is wrong with them because people don’t discuss this enough.”

Does mom brain get better?

Mom brain does get better “to a certain extent,” says Rohr, particularly as new moms start getting more sleep.

If mothers still find that “their cognitive functioning is not where it was pre-pregnancy,” says Rohr, “they may need compensatory skills,” such as organizational strategies like taking notes and setting up calendar reminders.

That has worked for Lawrence. She developed “processes and tricks” to keep herself focused and relies on “written lists and project managers” in ways she didn’t need before having a baby. Dozier says that doing the same is “working for me,” adding: “I guess I'm in it for the long haul, and I'll need to keep finding ways to navigate it just like I'm learning to navigate life with a new baby.”

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