The UK press has again jumped on the findings of a research study and translated it into a headline. But without taking full account of the detail or considering the wider picture for women. This time the subject is the phenomenon of so-called ‘baby brain’.
This phenomenon is known in some circles as mumnesia. ‘Baby brain’ describes the situation where some pregnant women and new mums find that they are less able to concentrate on rational tasks. They might also experience memory lapses. The headlines allege that the study, originally published in 2014, showed that baby brain is a stereotype rather than a real phenomenon.
Soon after the headlines hit the news stands, Behind the Headlines published their analysis of the research. They explained that this was a small study, of just 21 women. And it didn’t take into account the memory capacity and problem solving abilities of the participating women before they became pregnant. Taking this and other issues into account, they conclude that, “this study does not provide conclusive evidence that pregnancy has no effect on memory and attention”. (NHS Choices 2015).
And my take?
I first waded into this debate in 2003. I responded in an article to a similar news story which reported on another small study. The authors of that small study found that the pregnant women felt their memory and concentration were lower than they had been. But there were no cognitive differences between them and the non-pregnant women who also took part in the study. And I responded to that.
As I wrote at the time, I want to support the idea that the brain might be different in pregnancy.
And that this might be OK or normal for some women.
Maybe even a good thing.
“But I don’t do this to denigrate pregnant women,” I wrote, “and I don’t want to insist that pregnancy leads to automatic cognitive impairment. If anything, I am trying to hold a space for pregnant woman where it is acceptable to feel different, and where that does not lead to negative consequences, sarcastic comments or assumptions about the value of their abilities. I want it to be okay for all pregnant women to experience whatever it means for them to be pregnant. If that means they want to carry on and be as rational as possible, perhaps staying in an intellectually demanding job until they give birth, then let’s support that as their choice. But if they want to know it’s also okay to be in a less-than-rational space for part or all of their pregnancy, then I’d like to support that possibility too.” (Wickham 2003)
Why might baby brain be good?
There are several reasons why baby brain might be a normal thing. Perhaps it’s even a natural consequence of pregnancy, as least for some women. Pregnancy and motherhood are tiring, and tiredness can lead anyone to function differently. For many women, it involves learning a whole new skill set, and that is also tiring. Particularly on top of the lack of sleep that may come with advanced pregnancy and a new baby.
But I’m going to go further than that. I’m going to propose the idea that so called baby brain might even be a good sign. Or it would if we took a woman-centred approach to thinking about the issues. We know from all sorts of evidence that pregnancy, birth and mothering are journeys which ideally feature lots of oxytocin, the hormone of love and bonding. While I don’t want to get all black-and-white about comparing states of being, we know that oxytocin may not flow so well when we are stressed out. And if we’re continually using our rational, mathematical, thinking brains, we can get stressed out. Which is one of the reasons that I get concerned when people argue that women can be just as rational when they are pregnant and mothering.
Yes, I’m sure they can be if they want to.
Women are pretty amazing at being whatever they need to be at the time.
But can we please let them have the option of switching off and being filled with oxytocin ahead of, during and after their birth experiences if they want to be? Even if this means being a bit less rational for a while?
Could it be more complex than this?
In fact, there is also another possibility. This might be a step too far for the tabloid press and those who like to lump the entire population of pregnant women together into one group which can then be easily judged. But the other possibility is that we could stop trying to measure how pregnancy, birth and/or the experience of being a new mum is for everyone, as if we all have the same experience. Instead, we could ask individual women what the experience is like for them.
As a unique, individual person.
Whose experience is anything but average.
And who knows more about that experience and how it is making her think, be, know and feel better than anyone.
This idea, I know, is a bit revolutionary. So don’t expect to find it int he tabloids anytime soon.
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Logan DM, Hill KR, Jones R, et al (2014). How do memory and attention change with pregnancy and childbirth? A controlled longitudinal examination of neuropsychological functioning in pregnant and postpartum women. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology. 36(5):528-39.
No such thing as baby brain, study argues. NHS Choices, (2015). NHS Choices: behind the headlines, 8 April 2015.
Wickham S (2003). The big pregnancy brain mush myth. TPM 6(5):41.