Is 'Pregnancy Brain' Actually a Real Thing?

At 20 weeks pregnant, I started to feel like I was losing my mind. Not only was I leaving my phone and keys everywhere, a habit I regress into whenever I’m balancing more than I can handle, but worse, I began making the kind of mistakes in my pop culture writing I’d be horrified to find in someone else’s drafts: confusing the names of two popular sitcom actors, mixing up the subjects of two emails or articles, replacing one celebrity’s first name with another (i.e. writing Anne-Marie Sandberg and Sheryl Slaughter). These errors were of the silly variety, and getting caught quickly by me or others, but I was embarrassed by them—and terribly anxious that something worse would slip through.


So a handful of times, I felt I had to do something I’d never done before, which was tell people, including male-identifying people, that my mental acuity was temporarily dulled due to nebulous Lady Hormone stuff. “D’oh, baby brain!” said I, the self-identified radical feminist. Good feminists are never supposed to impute anything to Lady Hormone stuff, so I was certain that by explaining my distracted state of mind I was setting all of feminism back decades, ruining any respect I’d earned among my peers, and failing my foremothers, all while feeling relatively powerless to do anything but watch my mental powers slip away.

Desperate to justify my fogginess, I surveyed my pregnant friends to see if I was alone. Hardly: saying phrases like “Merry Halloween,” and confusing names and dates were the most common bloopers reported, as well as generally feeling “fuzzy.” One friend accidentally sent her partner to do an airport pickup on the wrong day, another told everyone that her husband came from her hometown and vice-versa. On my favorite pregnancy message board, some commenters were saying that their forgetfulness was so bad they were quitting their jobs. Maybe, I hoped, certain brain centers were actually shrinking. I mean, if our rib cages can expand during pregnancy and we can literally create a new life with our cells, anything is possible, right?

So I went online to discover whether pregnancy brain was a “real” condition, one so scientific it could absolve us for our addled states of mind. Not quite, according to one Australian study, whose lead researcher concluded that ‘’when focused on a task, women who are pregnant or new mothers do not have ‘cognitive deficits,’ and perform as well as their non-pregnant contemporaries.” On the other hand, I discovered a nearly-concurrent British study which found that “spatial recognition memory ability was reduced” in the end of pregnancy and the early months after birth. Both studies noted that the widely-reported problem of short-term memory loss in pregnancy may simply arise from exhaustion, hormones, anxiety, and did they mention exhaustion?

Indeed, my retroactive theory about that mid-pregnancy period when I was mixing up words and names regularly is that after surviving the intense nausea and anxiety of the first half of pregnancy and preparing for the physical trials of the third trimester and birth, my whole being, from my mind to my body, sort of slackened as a way of resting up. Thus, I would simply begin writing or saying a word and then hand it off to my subconscious brain to finish, hoping that autopilot function would nail the job—which it usually did, except, of course, when it didn’t.

Further, when that second trimester fog lifted, I felt a renewed sense of sharpness, and recognized that my spate of forgetful moments hadn’t simply been a regression. I had also been taking in a huge amount of complicated information at a rapid rate, and scheduling doctors’ appointments, tests, childbirth classes, breastfeeding classes, postpartum care and more. One smart friend of mine said she didn’t feel that her brain changed during pregnancy, but rather her focus did: she was prepping herself for a massive life change by reading up on parenting philosophies and trying to figure out what to expect, and where she stood.

The crash course takes up a lot of space. A year after beginning the pregnancy journey, I can rattle off an insane amount of information that I didn’t posses at all last June—and even offer an opinion on much of it. When my friends come to visit my baby, I find myself explaining the science behind so much of what happened when my son was born and since. My guests most frequently say, “I never knew that,” and I think: I didn’t either, a year ago.


Some of these topics include: the likelihood of getting listeria from a dozen kinds of foods, drinking during pregnancy, the rise and fall of the female reproductive cycle throughout the month, miscarriages vs. missed miscarriages, the technical difference between a blastocyst, a zygote and fetus, the nature of complications like hypermesis gravidarum, gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy; fundal height; pitocin, epidurals, and spinal taps, the stages of labor, the function and value of doulas and postpartum doulas, OBs vs. midwives, fetal monitoring and non-stress tests, umbilical cord care, the optimum time for introducing a bottle to breastfed babies, cry-it-out sleep training vs. attachment parenting, colostrum, transitional milk, foremilk and hindmilk, caesarean section recovery, different brands and types of strollers, cribs, baby carriers, swings, bouncers, swaddles, pacifiers and the attendant theories behind why using them works or doesn’t, infant visual, physical, social and linguistic development, arguments babysitters vs. daycare, and on and on and on.

Could it be that one of the reasons some people feel and act spacey when we’re pregnant is because we’re actually prioritizing the knowledge that matters in the here and now, gearing up to raise other human beings and switch our roles in the world, and letting other stuff slide for the time being? A few mistakes may be a small price to pay for the massive mental shift that prepares us for taking near-entire charge of someone else’s welfare. It may be that the socially-maligned “mom brain” is what it feels like to be so dramatically adaptable, and the fog during pregnancy or early infancy represents a period of rest or growth or simply shifted focus. This also makes me think about the way we consider our postpartum bodies weak and inferior because we can’t do sit-ups or fit into old jeans anymore, even though evidence suggests we’re stronger than we once were before we created another human being. When it comes to “mom brains” and “mom bodies,” we may simply lack the language to honor the complex ways we’ve altered, and that strikes me as being a subtler symptom of patriarchy than even those tired terms.


Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, journalism and criticism in New York City and the Editor-at-Large at pop culture website Flavorwire.




Additional evidence: At our 4th of July BBQ, 18 weeks pregnant, I couldn’t remember the word “cake” and tried explaining to my confused husband that I wanted a slice of “sugar bread.”