‘Baby brain’ is real

Improving Health and Wellbeing

New research supports what many women already know – that the phenomenon known as “baby brain” does exist, although further investigation is needed to determine its effect on expecting mothers.

Findings from Deakin University researchers published today in the “Medical Journal of Australia” show that women do experience what’s scientifically defined as “cognitive changes” during pregnancy.

Reported by up to 81 per cent of women who have been pregnant, “baby brain” refers to a “subjective decline in cognition,” with symptoms including poor concentration, absentmindedness and memory problems.

Researchers from Deakin’s School of Psychology conducted a meta-analysis of 20 studies, examining a total of 709 pregnant and 521 non-pregnant women.

“Our analysis seems to confirm a lot of what we hear anecdotally where women say they start forgetting things during pregnancy – they put the car keys in the fridge or miss appointments,” said Deakin’s Associate Professor Linda Byrne, a psychologist and neuroscientist in the School of Psychology.

“The studies we analysed showed general cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning performance of pregnant women was significantly lower than in non-pregnant women, both overall and particularly during the third trimester of pregnancy. The data also showed that the memory performance of pregnant women appears to decline between the first and second trimesters.”
Assoc Prof Linda Byrne
Associate Professor Linda Byrne Deakin University School of Psychology

However, Associate Professor Byrne said “baby brain” shouldn’t be cause for concern, but rather evidence of “biological priming”.

“Pregnant women have more important concerns than minor memory lapses. They’re growing a child and then preparing to give their full attention to caring for it,” she said.

“The research also showed that as soon as pregnant women were required to focus, they behaved at normal levels of cognitive function.”

Lead researcher Sasha Davies, a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology, said it was important to note that there were limitations to the available data used in the study.

“We know that other factors can impact on things like memory, and many of these weren’t accounted for in the data,” Ms Davies said.

“For example, there was little information on women pre- and post-pregnancy, making it hard to compare the same women over time.

“There was also no distinction made for women with multiple children and we know that sleep deprivation, often a big part of new parenthood, can leave people’s minds cloudy.”

Ms Davies is hoping to gain a better understanding of how women’s brains are affected during pregnancy by instigating a study of her own.

The School of Psychology is currently recruiting women who are planning a pregnancy, and those currently in the first trimester of their pregnancy for the study.

“The study will use sensitive neuroscience techniques to track changes in cognition before, during, and after pregnancy,” Ms Davies said.

“We also hope to use this information to see how ‘baby brain’ might affect health outcomes for pregnant women.”

To find out more visit www.babybrainresearch.com.

Published by Deakin Research 15 January 2018.