with Neuroscientist and Psychotherapist Dr. Jodi Pawluski
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Defining Mom Brain
- Physical Changes Of The Brain During Pregnancy & Postpartum
- Causes Of Brain Fog
- Coping With Brain Fog
- Effects of Chemical Substances And Sleep Hygiene on Brain Fog
Did you know that most moms will report experiencing some amount of memory loss during the postpartum period? If you can’t remember what you ate for breakfast, it’s okay! No other mom can either. As a mom of three boys I can totally relate to the forgetfulness and brain fog that sets in during those early postpartum days. Mom brain can be annoying—who wants to forget why they walked into a room—but it doesn’t have to be bad. Dr. Jodi Pawluski is here today to help us understand the physical and chemical changes in our brains and how to better care for our changing brains.
Defining Mom Brain
“When we talk about motherhood in the brain, we’re talking about memory,” Dr. Pawluski said. Mom brain is brain fog and forgetfulness that most women say they experience during late pregnancy and the post-partum period.
But when we talk about the brain during pregnancy, we forget to talk about how amazing it is. “I would like mom brain to be reframed, so we can think about the positives, not just the negatives,” she said.
Lots of women will experience forgetfulness, but the research shows that there are memory changes, but they are not as significant as we talk about. Or at least the memory changes that have showed up in the lab so far haven’t been as significant. It’s not all of your memory everywhere, and we don’t really know what parts of the memory are affected.
Physical Changes Of The Brain During Pregnancy & Postpartum
Brain imaging shows that during pregnancy some areas of the brain decrease, but during the postpartum period have more activity. “Size does not dictate activity,” Dr. Pawluski said. Rather than focusing on size, we can focus on the ways the brain is becoming more efficient.
Pregnancy through postpartum is the most elastic time for the brain during adult life. Your brain is changing so much and being reshaped almost like playdoh, but it’s becoming more fine tuned to meet your child’s needs.
You’re almost forming a whole new network of neurons. Motherhood physically changes the makeup of your brain. These changes in our brain are supposed to happen to bring that new network online to make us better parents. This is normal. These changes are supposed to occur. The changes your brain is making aren’t bad. It’s just helping you to become more efficient for a new role.
We talk about changes to your uterus and body, but we don’t talk about the changes to your brain or your cardiovascular system. According to Dr. Pawluski one side of your heart enlarges up to thirty-five percent.
Your hormones are also changing like crazy. “In terms of brain changes, I don’t think we know which comes first, the hormones or the brain,” Dr. Pawluski explained. Of course, the placenta is there producing hormones, so that could be a driving force behind the changes.
Your brain is changing, so if you feel a little bit off that’s okay. But if you’re feeling it consistently not emotionally well then that’s when it becomes a problem.
When it comes to mental illness, there is this idea that’s been around for two thousand years or more that hormones and your brain are key players in your mental health as mothers. Hippocrates was the first in the Western World to notice that giving birth must affect the brain.
Two thousand years later and we still don’t know the connection between hormones and the brain. It’s 2021 and we’re just starting to dedicate a small portion of science to research of maternal health!
Hormones have also gotten a bad rap over the years. Sometimes people don’t want to believe the connection between hormones and their brains, because it often has a negative connotation like “Oh, you’re just hormonal.”
Yeah, if you’ve spent months growing another human or have just grown another human, hormones played a key role in that. You’re hormonal, because you’re supposed to be. And hormones may have a negative connotation, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
We associate the hormone cortisol with stress. If you have high cortisol levels that must be bad, because you’re stressed out. Cortisol also frequently pops up in diet commercials as a reason women over a certain age—the exact number varies, usually between 35 and 40—can’t lose weight.
But for moms cortisol has important functions. It helps with milk production. It allows you to feed your baby.
Causes Of Brain Fog
We haven’t defined brain fog well in terms of pregnancy and motherhood.
Most moms will report memory loss or memory changes, but brain fog is different. Things don’t come together as quickly, and you can’t think as quickly. There is almost sluggishness to it. Sometimes it’s related to mood, but it doesn’t have to be.
People put brain fog under the “mom brain” umbrella, but if we try to parse it out, Dr. Pawluski explained we don’t really know what causes it.
Some things that seem to contribute are a lack of sleep—go figure—inadequate exercise, nutrition, and just how busy are we? How many things are on our plate that we’re trying to pay attention to?
But for moms there seems to be a cognitive overload that contributes. If cognitive overload isn’t a phrase you’re used to, it’s the idea that when too much information is presented too quickly, we’re left unable to process. It makes your brain want to say, “I’m sorry. Too much, the shop is closed today.”
For moms and brain fog, the idea is that there is so much going on, some of this memory loss might be triggered by cognitive overload which makes sense. You went from only having to feed yourself to feeding another human six times a day in evenly spaced intervals overnight. Not to mention everything else involved with keeping a tiny person alive. Your brain may be overloaded. We’ll get through it.
The volume of tasks involved with keeping other humans alive compared to only being responsible for you is exponential. As a mom, your brain always has 50 tabs open. When my phone has 50 tabs open, I get a message saying I have a tab to open more and my phone will work at peak performance with less tabs open. Moms don’t always have that prerogative.
And these are the tabs that have to be open before all the “shoulds” come in. We load things we think we should be doing on top of the things we have to do, and our brains freak out because it’s too much.
The constant tasks are “wear and tear” on our brains. So, as moms we really need to focus on what our needs are, and how we can meet some of those needs. “We need to own our motherhood,” Dr. Pawluski said. We’re not all going to accomplish the same tasks in the same ways, and that’s okay. We need to accept it.
Coping With Brain Fog
Working with clients, we try to start out with lifestyle changes first, and then if the brain fog persists, it might be time to see a doctor and get a blood panel to check for things like anemia and thyroid problems.
Some things you might want to try before seeing a doctor are getting outside because vitamin D can help, trying to prioritize sleep which can seem impossible with small children, and even getting out to socialize. Being with our babies all the time can be really lovely, but humans are social creatures. Seeing other adults without the kids can be really important to our mental health.
Dr. Pawluski reminded us, “I’m speculating on this.” The research in this area just isn’t available, but these are things that seem to help. She also told us about her recent conversation with a sleep specialist.
Dr. Katie Sharkey’s research showed that going to bed earlier was more beneficial than trying to nap during the day or sleep when the baby sleeps. If you can go to bed at 9 even though the baby’s going to wake up at 11, that’s still 2 hours of sleep in a good sleep window. So, if you’re not a napper, don’t nap. Just go to bed earlier.
Sharkey’s research showed that not only can this be valuable for your mental health it helps with milk production as well.
Going to bed earlier could help with brain fog as well and keeping a routine is helpful as well. There isn’t a lot of research on mom fog or brain fog as it relates to mom, but there is a lot of research on the relationship between sleep and the brain. Dr. Bolte Taylor recently explained to us that the REM part of your sleep cycle is when the brain “takes out the trash,” so to speak.
Effects of Chemical Substances And Sleep Hygiene on Brain Fog
The two most common chemical substances we see in mom culture are caffeine and alcohol. Think about all the “mommy needs wine” and “not before my coffee” memes we see on Facebook and Instagram.
Your glass of wine might help you feel more relaxed and help you fall asleep. But Dr. Pawluski said, “It will make your sleep worse.” You fall asleep faster but won’t sleep as well. Alcohol can also deplete nutrients in your body and affect sleep that way. Insufficient sleep can increase your anxiety.
If you’re out with a friend and want to have a glass of wine, it’s okay to have it once in a while. But if it’s becoming a regular thing or you’re using alcohol to help with sleep or anxiety, it can become a vicious cycle. “Everything in moderation is great, but keep it to that,” Dr. Pawluski said.
Caffeine is something that most of us enjoy in the mornings. But it can be something we need to control, because it increases anxiety. It also impacts sleep, so stopping it early can be helpful for sleep.
Some people find it helpful to stay away from caffeine in the afternoon both to help sleep and anxiety.
Small lifestyle changes like cutting out your evening wine or stopping caffeine earlier in the day can make a big impact on how alert you feel.
Going to bed early, getting up in the morning, and going outside or turning on lights to get you started can have a big impact too.
Sleep hygiene during the postpartum starts during pregnancy. There is a myth that you sleep poorly during pregnancy to prepare you for the postpartum period, but Dr. Pawluski explained emerging data shows that assumption is incorrect. But sleep can be a really hard thing to correct during the postpartum period when you have 500 things to do and a baby to care for all day and then the baby wakes every 2-3 hours.
We’ve talked about things that can help you sleep, but new motherhood—even if this isn’t your first child and maybe especially if it isn’t since that means there is another kid to take care of—is such a hard time. So, think of this like a baby step. Choose one thing we’ve talked about that you think might realistically work for you and try it.
In a week you can pick a new thing. If last week’s attempt didn’t help, no problem. Let’s try again with something else. If it did, you can choose to add another baby step, or you might feel you’re doing okay with the changes you’ve implemented.
Reframing Brain Fog
I feel like I’ve said this throughout, but it’s worth repeating. Mom brain fog is often talked about negatively. It has a lot of negative connotations, and forgetting small things you used to be able to remember can be annoying.
But mom brain isn’t bad. It doesn’t mean your brain has gotten worse. It means your brain has changed. It can’t remember what you did yesterday as well as it could a year ago, but it does know how to take care of a tiny human way better than it did before.
Mom brain is your new super power to navigate the world responsible for someone else’s life.
You’re doing great, mamas. Keep showing up!
And if you still feel like you need more support, check out the Maternal Wellness Center, you can find a professional to help guide you through some of these changes there.
Dr Jodi Pawluski, PhD, HDR is a neuroscientist at the University of Rennes 1, France and also a practicing psychotherapist. For more than 15 years, her research has focused on the neuroscience of motherhood and the effects of maternal mental illness and antidepressant medications on mother and offspring. She regularly speaks nationally and internationally about her research findings as well as the fascinating effects of motherhood on the maternal brain. She is an advocate for improving maternal mental health awareness and is a member of the Canadian Perinatal Mental Health Collaborative which is currently lobbying the Canadian Federal Government to create a national perinatal mental health strategy.