The UK press has again jumped on the findings of a research study and translated it into a headline without taking full account of the detail or considering the wider picture for women, and this time the subject is the phenomenon of ‘baby brain’.
This phenomenon is known in some circles as mumnesia and describes the situation where some pregnant women and new mums find that they are less able to concentrate on rational tasks and experience memory lapses. The headlines allege that the study, originally published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 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, explaining that this was a small study (of 21 women) which 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).
May I put my cards on the table at the outset, and then you can judge for yourself whether you can relate to my take on this or not? I first weighed into this debate in 2003, when I responded in an article to a similar news story which reported on another small study. The authors of that small study found that, although the pregnant women felt their memory and concentration were lower than they had been, there were no cognitive differences between them and the non-pregnant women who also took part in the study.
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, and maybe even a good thing,
“But I don’t do this to denigrate pregnant women, 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)
There are several reasons why baby brain might be a normal thing and 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, especially 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, and propose the idea that so called baby brain might even be a good sign – at least 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, perhaps because we’re continually using our rational, mathematical, thinking brains, and this 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?
In fact, and I realise that 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 another possibility is that we could also decide to move away from the idea that it is beneficial (or even possible) to make an assessment of how pregnancy, birth and/or the experience of being a new mum affects women as a group, and actually 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.
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.