At one point or another, whether we’re pregnant or not, we all tend to forget to pick up the milk, misplace our keys, or accidentally burn food on the stove. These occasional bouts of forgetfulness are heightened for expectant mothers who normally tend to be ditzy, but these memory lapses could in fact be attributed to changes in the brain during pregnancy. Hormonal fluctuations, mental, and physical stress take a toll on a pregnant mother's brain health, but is “baby brain” biologically real or just a widespread anecdotal side effect of pregnancy and motherhood?

Pregnancy Brain: Fact or Myth?

During pregnancy, expectant mothers face endless possibilities when it comes to symptoms and side effects, but one that is the root of a lot of speculation, despite scientific and anecdotal evidence, is pregnancy brain. It is no contest that pregnant women report not feeling as mentally sharp, but whether the capacity of their brain is altered as a result is unknown. Two opposing studies leave us on the fence whether hormonal changes in pregnancy may play a part in any neurological changes that impair memory or cognition.

A popularly cited 2007 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology found evidence of mental impairment in pregnant women. The analysis was based on 14 studies that were conducted over the course of 17 years that compared pregnant and/or postpartum women with healthy matched controls on measures of memory. The pregnant women were significantly impaired on some, but not all, measures of memory. Although forgetfulness and slips of attention were commonly reported among these women, a specific mechanism which causes this memory impairment has yet to be identified.

In contrast, a 2010 study found there are no significant changes in memory or cognition, researchers found after following a group of women before, during, and after pregnancy. However, the researchers note late pregnancy, or the third trimester, was associated with deterioration on one of the four tests of memory and cognition the researchers conducted.

Although there is scientific data to support and retract the existence of “momnesia,” along with anecdotal evidence, the common signs of memory lapses should not be ignored. Hormonal surges, the inevitable mental and physical stress, could lead to a variety of emotions that can manifest in impaired memory or cognition.

In Your Head: Hormones and Brain Health During Pregnancy

Whether or not the brain cells of moms-to-be change during pregnancy, there is good reason to feel scatterbrained and absentminded. Pregnancy is considered to be a critical time for the central nervous system development in expectant mothers because it is the only time in a woman’s life where she experiences a massive amount of hormonal fluctuations, according to Healthline. The reproductive hormones, progesterone, and estrogen, can act as protection to prepare the mom’s brain for motherhood by focusing solely on her baby’s needs.

Estrogen and progesterone influence brain function affecting various neurons in the brain. Popular opinion has long held that hot flashes can contribute to degenerative or aging changes in the brain, with the hippocampus — the center of memory and cognition — experiencing the greatest change. This suggests that hormones may affect spatial memory that includes remembering where things are for pregnant women.

Pregnancy Brain: An Evolutionary Look

Moms-to-be spend a lot of time thinking about the changes that come with having a baby and how they will take care of their newborn. The physical and mental stress brought on by these concerns could possibly be explained from an evolutionary standpoint. According to the Leiden Psychology Blog at the Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands, pregnancy-related memory impairment may be helpful because women forget about irrelevant stuff and focus on caring for the baby. It may be female intuition to become protective of their offspring and disregard other facets of life that are not related to the child.

Pregnancy Brain: Is It All Just In Your Head?

The idea of pregnancy brain has been widely accepted as an anecdotal side effect of pregnancy, as this could explain why more women report it. The Mayo Clinic notes pregnant women and new mothers are more aware about their bouts of forgetfulness and as a result may mistakenly perceive themselves to have trouble thinking straight. Overall, women who catch their minor lapses in mental ability may attribute it to pregnancy since that is the only significant thing on their minds. Also, a lack of sleep could be hiding the positive cognitive effects of pregnancy and therefore lead to impaired memory or cognition.

Whether you or someone you know believe to have experienced pregnancy brain, it is important to sharpen your mental acuity during the stages of pregnancy. Simply write everything down, get more sleep, and simplify your life so you can reduce your stress and protect your baby’s health. Pregnancy brain or not, managing your physical and mental stress can provide peace of mind during these nine months.