Terms like “baby brain,” “mommy brain” and “momnesia,” are often used to describe the brain fog women might experience before or soon after giving birth.
But scientists say it’s time we stop using such language. Not only is the notion that motherhood causes a decline in cognitive abilities inaccurate, it’s also unfair to moms, according to an essay written by a team of scientists in JAMA Neurology.
Very few studies have investigated whether mothers actually suffer from memory loss during pregnancy and the postpartum period, the authors write. But those that have failed to find significant cognitive differences in the abilities of women who have children compared with women without children. Yet if you were to ask new moms whether they have experienced the memory loss and confusion popularly labeled “mommy brain”, around 80% would say yes.
So why is there a mismatch between women experiencing “mommy brain” in real-life but not under the microscope?
Being a mom is really distracting
There’s one very real aspect of being a mother which studies forget to include, according to the JAMA authors: A live, very distracting, attention-demanding newborn.
That might be one of the reasons why moms can feel very distracted in their every day lives, but studies—which are often conducted in quiet settings with no baby to interfere—pick up any kind of cognitive difference, according to the essay authors.
Essentially, women with children perform just as well as their childless counterparts because their cognitive ability has not declined. New moms just don’t have the distraction of a babbling baby taking-up brain space in a lab setting.
A damaging narrative
The prevalence of the “mommy brain” narrative could be bending perception of both society and researchers, according to the JAMA authors.
“While complaints of mental fogginess should be taken seriously, it is likely the inescapable narrative of mommy brain contributes to these subjective reports, focusing pregnant women’s (and researchers’) attention on what may be a small decrease in particular aspects of cognitive function, while at the same time ignoring the faculties that are gained during this period of life,” Dr. Clare McCormack, Dr. Bridget L. Callaghan and Dr. Jodi L. Pawluski write.
Everyone can experience a lapse in memory—especially under extreme circumstances. But after being told to expect their cognitive ability to decline after pregnancy, expectant women may incorrectly deduce that something very normal, like misplacing the car keys, is down to “momnesia”.
It’s the same reason society labels pregnant and postpartum women with “mom brain“ while overlooking that they may simply be distracted from juggling motherhood with everything else going on in their life.
But society fails to recognize the abilities that women gain through pregnancy, according to the JAMA authors. They write that when mothers are tested on parenting tasks, they outperform women without kids. Not only that, but tests show that the experience of pregnancy or child-rearing actually improves long-term memory and boosts learning capabilities.
So, it might be high time “mommy brain” is given a rebrand to reflect that.
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