The term ‘mommy brain’ needs to be ditched because the concept may not be real and is unfair to moms, scientists say

February 8, 2023, 4:49 PM UTC
Pregnant Chinese woman gesturing and explaining to colleague
Really anyone who’s sleep-deprived and addressing the constant needs of another human being would struggle to think clearly.
10,000 Hours—Getty Images

Terms like “baby brain,” “mommy brain,” and “momnesia” are often used to describe the brain fog women might experience before or soon after giving birth.

But scientists say it’s time we stop using such language. Not only is the notion that motherhood causes a decline in cognitive abilities inaccurate, it’s also unfair to moms, according to an essay by a team of scientists in JAMA Neurology.

Very few studies have investigated whether mothers actually suffer from memory loss during pregnancy and the postpartum period, the authors write. And studies that have explored the issue have failed to find significant cognitive differences between women who give birth and those who don’t. Yet if you were to ask new moms whether they have experienced the memory loss and confusion popularly labeled “mommy brain,” around 80% would say yes. 

So why is there a mismatch between women experiencing “mommy brain” in real life and not under the microscope?

Being a mom is really distracting 

There’s one very real aspect of being a mother that studies forget to include, according to the JAMA authors: a distracting, attention-demanding newborn. 

That might be one of the reasons why moms can feel quite distracted in their everyday lives, but studies—often conducted in quiet settings with no baby to interfere—won’t detect any kind of cognitive difference, according to the essay authors.

Essentially, women with children perform just as well as their childless counterparts because their cognitive ability has not declined. New moms just don’t have the distraction of a babbling baby taking up brain space in a lab setting. 

A damaging narrative

The prevalence of the “mommy brain” narrative could be clouding the perception of both society and researchers, according to the JAMA authors.

“While complaints of mental fogginess should be taken seriously, it is likely the inescapable narrative of mommy brain contributes to these subjective reports, focusing pregnant women’s (and researchers’) attention on what may be a small decrease in particular aspects of cognitive function, while at the same time ignoring the faculties that are gained during this period of life,” Clare McCormack, Bridget L. Callaghan, and Jodi L. Pawluski write.

Everyone can experience a lapse in memory—especially under extreme circumstances. But after being told to expect their cognitive ability to decline after pregnancy, expectant mothers may incorrectly deduce that something very normal, like misplacing the car keys, is down to “momnesia.” 

It’s the same reason society labels pregnant and postpartum women with “mom brain,” while overlooking that they may simply be distracted by juggling motherhood with everything else going on in their lives. 

But society fails to recognize the abilities that women gain through pregnancy, according to the JAMA authors. They write that when mothers are tested on parenting tasks, they outperform women without kids. Not only that, but tests show that the experience of pregnancy or child-rearing actually improves long-term memory and boosts learning capabilities.  

So it might be high time “mommy brain” is given a rebrand to reflect that.

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