The Term ‘Mommy Brain’ Is Unfair, Scientists Say

Editor’s note: Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez is a primary care pediatrician, director of pediatric telemedicine, and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.


Pregnancy brain, mommy brain, momnesia – our culture has learned to use the term to describe moms wherever they seem forgetful or scattered before and shortly after giving birth. But the idea that motherhood itself is associated with lower cognitive abilities may be both wrong and unfair to moms and their brains, a team of scientists wrote in a paper published Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology.

According to the authors of the new paper, Dr. Clare McCormack, Dr. Bridget L. Callaghan and Dr. Jodi L. Pawluski.

But ask new moms and 8 out of 10 will say they’ve experienced the memory loss and brain fog commonly known as “mommy brain.” Why then, don’t studies find what so many women experience?

One reason, the authors explain, may be the peace and quiet of the labs where most studies are done. Without screaming children and a long list of tasks to manage before their eyes, thinking becomes easier and moms perform as well as women without children.

Another possible reason: “Mommy’s brain” isn’t real and people are quick to judge. A simple slip of the mind in an often overworked, sleep-deprived mother is quickly dubbed “mommy’s brain” by a society that expects women’s cognitive abilities to decline after having children. Women too may have learned to use the term to deal with the impossibilities of new motherhood. Making fun of those and calling her “mummy’s brain” might just be a cry for help from moms who don’t feel supported.

Finally, studies may not be finding what so many women are experiencing because scientists may just be asking the wrong questions.

In trying to find the supposed loss of brain function that women can experience after having children, they may miss the remarkable adaptation and remodeling of neural connections that occur in women’s brains to prepare them for the enormous task of parenthood.

When mothers are subjected to studies that more closely mimic the reality of their new situation, they do better than childless women. Testing the mothers on parenting tasks revealed that they showed improved learning and overall improvement in long-term memory, the authors explained.

These types of studies – those that start from an understanding of the complexity, occupation and dynamism of the brains of new mothers and mothers-to-be – hold the most potential for a true understanding of exactly what happens when women become mothers, say the authors. Until then, they have a message: Stop calling it “mama’s brain”.


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