The science of ‘baby brain’

By Danielle Galvin

Most expectant or post-partum mothers can relate to the unusual phenomenon commonly referred to as ‘baby brain’.

It involves that feeling of mental fogginess, poor decision making or hilarious missteps.

‘Baby brain’ is often used as a reason for doing something silly during pregnancy, like putting the kettle in the fridge.

Historically, it’s been laughed off. But for some women, the mental fog, forgetfulness, difficulty comprehending complex or sometimes quite simple tasks, ‘baby brain’ is very real.

Science tells us it is.

Deakin University PhD candidate Sasha Davies is the lead author on a report investigating baby brain and how it can be observed and even measured.

She said it’s only been in the last 20 or so years where researchers have moved to objectively try and measure baby brain, as a lot of the academic literature over the years debated about whether it was real or not.

“What we mean by the term baby brain, at least in our study, is any cognitive deficiency in terms of attention performance, mental performance, or executive functioning referring to processes like decision making, planning and judgements,” she explains.

“There has been a lot of studies on memory, but not a lot on the others.

“We tend to use terms like mental fogginess because it what people understand from their own experiences, it helps them understand what it means.

“Mental fogginess can mean a lot of different things – it can mean anything from reading comprehension, or memory lapses.”

Studies in the past have asked pregnant women to undertake memory tasks. But the Deakin team believes it may be beneficial to look at more sensitive approaches to measuring what’s called the neural differences occurring in a pregnant woman’s brain, to back-up some of those anecdotal behavioural changes.

“We are looking at a really sensitive method of measuring brainwave activity and changes in that,” Ms Davies said.

Researchers undertook an analysis of 20 studies that included a total of 709 pregnant and 521 non-pregnant women.

In the report, they conclude; “general cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning were significantly poorer in pregnant than in control women, particularly during the third trimester.”

They found the changes usually develop in the first trimester.

Ms Davies says it’s a fascinating area of study.

“It’s a bit silly we haven’t thought about it (before),” she said.

“Our body changes, our mood changes, these are all kind of accepted things that change doing pregnancy.

“No one has really looked at the brain and thought well the brain is just another organ, and it goes through change.”

On the Yarra Ranges Kids Facebook page, many readers shared their own experiences with so-called baby brain.

“I washed the dishes then put the dish stick in the freezer. Found it two days later,” Darcie wrote.

At least we know have science on our side.