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Fact or fiction? The Mommy Brain

You forgot your best friend’s birthday, lost your car in the grocery store parking lot and sent your husband to work with a Sponge Bob lunchbox.

Are you finally losing it? Or is it just a bad case of Mommy Brain?

Is my brain turning to mush?

Having a baby changes a lot of things in your life and your brain may, in fact, be one of them. Many moms complain during pregnancy and postpartum they feel distracted and forget things more easily. The inability to recall names, dates and the location of your car in the Target parking lot — it certainly can be frustrating. But is this type of “momnesia” really evidence of Mommy Brain or just a product of brains overtaxed by the emotional and physical strains of new motherhood?

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Motherhood and the plastic brain

Believe it or not, recent studies show not only do moms’ brains not turn to mush after giving birth, they actually grow stronger. The brain is a very plastic organ and under the influence of motherhood, it grows and changes in very positive ways. During pregnancy and after the birth of a baby, key areas in a mother’s brain grow in size including the hypothalamus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala. These areas of the brain help moms to respond more quickly and emotionally to their babies’ needs, help them plan ahead and actually improve their memory for things related to the welfare of their children.

“From an evolutionary standpoint, a mother is faced with a really significant challenge,” explains Dr. Craig Kinsley, coordinator of neuroscience at the University of Richmond. “She had to do everything she did before, plus a whole new suite of behaviors to keep her offspring alive. How females evolved in nature is to have their brains adapt in pregnancy so that their young enhance their behaviors.”

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Facing new challenges boosts brain power

Anyone who has ever spent time trying to convince a stubborn 2-year-old not to flush all her Polly Pockets down the toilet while simultaneously breastfeeding an infant and cooking dinner would relate to the fact that parenting presents many new (and often unusual!) challenges, ecouraging us to think in creative ways. Fortunately, instead of causing our brains to overheat and turn to mush, this type of thinking actually helps to stimulate the brain, igniting the brain’s natural neuroplasticity to rewire in ways that are advantageous for mom. “Many benefits seem to emerge from motherhood, as the maternal brain rises to the reproductive challenge,” says Kinsley. “In other words, when the going gets tough, the brain gets going.”

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Benefits of motherhood on the brain

So, while it may be true that moms can be forgetful about trivial matters during pregnancy and the first few months postpartum due to lack of sleep, in the long run, motherhood is actually a big boost for the brain. “We are clearly showing that mothers have better memories about things related to their infants,” says Dr. Pilyoung Kim, a developmental psychologist at the National Institutes of Mental Health. “There are a lot of things going on, and mothers might feel forgetful about things that are not related to their infants. It’s just dependent on what is really important for us to remember at the time.”

More on new mom health and wellness

Symptoms of postpartum depression
New parents: How to get your groove back
Thoughtful ways to help new moms after baby arrives

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