Pregnancy Brain: Is It Real or Just a Myth?

If you’re experiencing forgetfulness, fogginess, or general absent-mindedness while pregnant, you could have what’s sometimes known as “pregnancy brain.” There’s no scientific or medical consensus that pregnancy brain is real, but several studies have revealed a relation between being pregnant and poorer performance of typical cognitive functions. Read on to learn what pregnancy brain is, if it’s real, what causes it, and how you can help boost your memory and concentration while pregnant.

What Is Pregnancy Brain and Is It Real?

Pregnancy brain isn’t an official medical condition; rather, it’s a catchall term for some symptoms that affect many—if not most—pregnant people. Though it might not be a true condition, with so many reports of forgetfulness and mental fogginess while pregnant (and sometimes postpartum), it's likely that something is going on. Whether or not experts end up deciding that pregnancy brain is real, it's helpful to know more about the various symptoms you may experience and their potential causes.


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What Causes Pregnancy Brain and Is It Normal?

It’s not clear what leads to the forgetfulness and general “momnesia” of pregnancy brain. However, there are a few possible factors.

  • Hormones. One possible trigger is pregnancy hormones. The big shifts in levels of estrogen and progesterone, for example, can produce a wide range of symptoms during pregnancy, many affecting brain function.

  • Fatigue. Another condition that affects many pregnant people—fatigue—can also contribute to a foggy brain and faulty memory. And lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep, both common complaints during pregnancy, may also be part of the mix.

  • Morning sickness. Along with fatigue, morning sickness can make you feel worn down and mentally fuzzy.

  • Stress. When you have a lot on your plate, it can be difficult to concentrate. And pregnancy brings so many things to think about and anticipate, which can cause stress or anxiety and contribute to that forgetfulness or absentmindedness.

  • Depression. Some people experience a bout of depression before giving birth, which one study linked to memory problems. Others have depression periodically or throughout pregnancy, causing attention issues. If you feel depressed or anxious during your pregnancy, contact your healthcare provider for guidance.

In addition to these common possible triggers, some research suggests that that being pregnant does lead to memory impairment and reduced attention span, which often continue into the postpartum period. At the same time, other studies find that there’s little or no difference in these functions among those who are pregnant and those who aren’t. So, although there are some clear links between what happens during pregnancy (hormonal changes, fatigue, stress, etc.) and the so-called pregnancy brain symptoms, the (medical) jury is still out on its status as an actual condition.

The Effects of Pregnancy on the Brain

Though pregnancy brain isn’t an officially sanctioned medical condition, one small (but important) study shows that pregnancy does lead to changes in the brain’s structure, and that those changes may last up to two years after someone gives birth. Here’s how the study went:

  • First, the researchers performed brain scans on individuals who were hoping to become pregnant with their first child, and then (for those who did conceive) repeated the scans after labor and delivery.

  • Then, after comparing these scans with those of control groups (women and men who weren’t pregnant), the scientists discovered a reduction of gray matter in certain areas of the brain after pregnancy.

OK, so pregnancy brain just went from annoying hormones to reduced gray matter! But what makes this study so interesting is that this observed effect could be a positive one. Experts suggest that this “pruning” or “shedding” of brain tissue helps the brain become more focused and efficient for the job that lies ahead—caring for a tiny baby—and enables a new parent to form a stronger attachment to the baby. So, if you’re experiencing a little memory loss, lack of concentration, or general forgetfulness, that might just be pregnancy brain helping you prepare for your new baby!

Pregnancy Brain Symptoms

The symptoms and severity of pregnancy brain vary from person to person. Some examples of pregnancy brain include

  • memory lapses

  • absentmindedness

  • forgetfulness and “fogginess”

  • an inability to concentrate

  • difficulty reading

  • general spaciness.

When these conditions hit, sometimes all at once, it can throw you for a loop, especially when you’re dealing with the many physical and lifestyle changes that already come with being pregnant.

Remember that these symptoms are normal and you’re doing a great job as your little one develops inside that baby bump of yours!

When Does Pregnancy Brain Start and How Long Will It Last?

No two people or pregnancies are the same, so there’s no common starting or stopping point for any typical symptoms of pregnancy brain. You could experience brain fog early in your pregnancy due to shifting hormones, or you may notice pregnancy brain later on in your third trimester, when a little anxiety or stress might take over as you anticipate your baby’s arrival, and your brain starts preparing for parenthood. The amount of time pregnancy brain lasts may depend on what is causing or contributing to the symptoms and when those triggers subside. Take the following as examples:

  • If your forgetfulness is linked to morning sickness, and your nausea fades after the first trimester, you could start to notice improvement in memory around then.

  • On the other hand, as per the study mentioned above, some experience pregnancy brain symptoms that extend well into the postpartum period.

Consult your healthcare provider if you have concerns or questions about any changes in memory or cognitive function during (or after) pregnancy. One way to cope with pregnancy brain is to start getting ready for your little one’s arrival. Watch the video below for tips on preparing the nursery:

What to Do About Pregnancy Brain

No matter what lies behind the brain fog, it’s worthwhile to have some tools and tips to help you focus and stay organized. Try the following strategies that may help support you when dealing with pregnancy brain:

  • Stay organized. Keeping your life as organized as possible can go a long way, and there are plenty of strategies that help.

    • Make lots of lists and put them around the house or in your car.

    • Set reminders, timers, or calendar updates on your phone.

    • Designate one special spot for all your important items so you don’t misplace them.

  • Relax. Learn and use some relaxation techniques to reduce stress during pregnancy. The more relaxed you are, the less likely you are to become confused or forget something.

  • Prioritize tasks. Prioritize the tasks in your life and concentrate your time and attention on what’s most important. As the saying goes, don’t sweat the small stuff!

  • Exercise. Try to be physically active every day, if possible. Exercise during pregnancy offers many benefits, but an important one is increasing blood flow throughout your body, including your brain.

  • Get enough sleep. This is not the easiest goal to accomplish when pregnant, but you’ll find plenty of tips for sleeping during pregnancy, such as creating a relaxing bedtime routine.

  • Delegate. You don’t have to do everything yourself, so be willing to ask for help! Learning to delegate and accept help now, before your baby arrives, saves you a lot of time and trouble later. Once you’re a parent, you really can’t and shouldn’t do it all.

  • Eat well. Maintain a healthy pregnancy diet to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need. Eating the right foods can also help keep those energy levels up and support brain function.

The Bottom Line

Many pregnant people report symptoms of what’s known as “pregnancy brain,” like forgetfulness, short periods of memory loss, and mental fogginess—and several studies confirm that pregnancy can lead to poorer cognitive function and impact the brain. At the same time, other studies show little or no difference in brain functionality in those who are pregnant and those who aren’t. The medical community may be on the fence as to whether pregnancy brain is real, but know that it’s normal to experience brain fog, absentmindedness, and other similar symptoms while pregnant. One interesting study showed physical changes in the brain during pregnancy and suggested that the changes could help in preparing for parenthood and bonding with your new baby. So, maybe it’s just fatigue and hormones getting the better of you, or perhaps there’s truly something beneficial behind the concept of pregnancy brain. Regardless, do your best to be patient as you work through these symptoms and face other challenges during your pregnancy. Remind yourself that you’re on a wonderful journey and that it won’t be long now until you’re welcoming your newest family member!