Having a baby, I anticipated some physical changes: my boobs got bigger, my hips grew wider, and my vagina briefly resembled a war zone. What I didn’t expect were the mental changes that accompanied the birth of my first child.
Both my midwife and OB warned me about baby brain, a condition that leaves pregnant and postnatal women feeling forgetful and foggy. They suggested that if I felt out of sorts mentally, I shouldn’t panic because “it’s totally normal.” To be honest, I didn’t think much about baby brain until I was in the throes of it. At best, I’d leave my diaper bag at home and have to turn the car around. At worst, I couldn’t remember the word for doorknob. (I just kept referring to it as the thing on the door you twist to get inside the house.) I didn’t feel like I was out of sorts — I felt like I was losing my mind.
Little is known about the effects of pregnancy on the brain, but as interest in the subject grows neurologists find themselves debating whether or not baby brain exists at all. A 2015 study out of Brigham Young University suggests baby brain is imagined. Controlled tests showed that when it comes to memory, attention, learning, organizational, and spatial skills, pregnant and postpartum women performed as well as their non-gestating counterparts. What differed among the two groups was how the pregnant and postnatal women felt they did during testing: they simply assumed they weren’t doing that well. I read the BYU study and felt dejected. Was my absentmindedness actually just a lack of confidence, or did giving birth knock some screws loose?
I didn’t feel like I was out of sorts — I felt like I was losing my mind.
I finally found the answers I was looking for when I read a new study published in Nature Neuroscience that proves pregnancy changes human brain structure. And get this: those changes could last up to two years! High resolution brain scans of 25 women — taken pre- and then post-conception — showed a reduction of gray matter that may be a result of hormonal surges that occur during pregnancy. The reworking of gray matter occurred in areas of the brain that are involved in social processes, giving women a heightened ability to recognize the needs of their children. Changes also occurred in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory. The more pronounced the changes, the stronger the women’s responses were to their babies postpartum.
Hopefully this unique, unprecedented study sparks more discussions about the legitimacy of baby brain. All I know is I’ve never been more relieved to find out I was literally losing my mind.