There is a lot that changes in the body during pregnancy – your nose can change shape, your hips can expand permanently, and the fetus can (temporarily) steal calcium from your bones.
But pregnancy can also affect your brain, both how you process information and your memory. It’s called “pregnancy brain” or “baby brain,” but it mimics the symptoms of brain fog, including forgetfulness, trouble thinking, feeling cloudy, or having trouble finding the right words during a conversation.
Sometimes called baby brain or momnesia, pregnancy brain is a common form of forgetfulness that begins during pregnancy. Most experts attribute this to the hormone rush you get during pregnancy, which can be up to six times higher than your pre-pregnancy levels. These hormones increase shortly after a woman becomes pregnant and increase sharply in the second and third trimesters,” says Maeva Althaus, childbirth educator and doula at HypnoDoula Maeva.
Ahead, we ask experts all about pregnancy brain, including when pregnancy brain kicks in, what causes it, and whether it’s treatable.
Is Pregnancy Brain Real?
While some people dispute the validity of the pregnancy brain, most experts agree that it is a real phenomenon.
“The majority of women report some form of pregnancy brain damage during pregnancy or postpartum. In addition, some studies have shown that women have impaired memory and score lower on cognitive and executive function tests, suggesting that it is a true phenomenon,” says Lisa Becht, MD , FACOG and Board Certified Reproductive Endocrinologist at HRC Fertility.
A 2021 report published in Scientific Reports studied 40 pregnant and non-pregnant women and found memory impairments in pregnant women — and “in addition, language skills, particularly naming, were also impaired,” the researchers said. A small study, but a study nonetheless.
Baby brain symptoms can vary depending on the person and can ebb and flow during pregnancy but can include absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, difficulty focusing and difficulty multitasking. For the most part, says Dr. Becht, pregnancy brain fog is exactly the same as brain fog, but specific to pregnancy.
When does the pregnancy brain kick in?
While everyone’s experience with pregnancy is different, Althaus says most of her clients have experienced some form of pregnancy brain in her years of doula work, and it may start sooner than you might think.
“Pregnancy brain kicks in with a surge of hormones shortly after a woman gets pregnant, which becomes more important in the second and third trimesters. Many women experience particularly noticeable pregnancy brain surges in the third trimester,” she says.
What Causes Pregnancy Brain?
Like most changes during pregnancy, baby brain fog is also related to hormones. “The high and fluctuating hormone state of pregnancy and postpartum can affect the brain and cause physiological changes that lead to pregnancy brain,” says Dr. Becht. In addition, stress, changes in sleep habits, and other physical changes during pregnancy can affect the intensity of symptoms, she says.
Although it sounds like pain, it is believed that the pregnancy brain is actually your body’s way of focusing on the needs of a future child and letting the rest fall into the background. “Research has been relegated to specific and direct cognitive looking [function] — as well as actual brain structural changes via MRI — in pregnant women,” says Kecia Gaither, MD, a dual board certified in ob-gyn and Maternal Fetal Medicine and director of Perinatal Services/Maternal Fetal Medicine at NYC Health. “Gray matter apparently takes in those parts of the brain relegated to processing and responding to social cues. These changes have been proposed to enable mothers to be more responsive to their babies’ needs.”
How Long Does Pregnancy Brain Fog Last?
For most people, pregnancy lasts until after delivery, with different people feeling back to normal according to their own individual timeframe.
A 2016 study published in Nature Neuroscience suggests pregnancy may have a long-lasting impact on brain structure, though it’s unclear precisely how those findings may affect pregnancy brain duration.
Of course, right after the baby is born, you’re probably going to have some sleep deprivation, and it can be hard to distinguish what is pregnancy brain and what is fatigue.
The takeaway? You will have to give yourself some time and patience as your body gets used to so many changes.
Can You Treat Brain Fog During Pregnancy?
While there’s no cure, a consistent sleep schedule is key to managing pregnancy brain effects, Dr. Becht says. Likewise, exercise and proper nutrition can help with symptoms.
Pregnancy and adjusting to life after giving birth may not always be easy, but if you’re struggling with the inability to concentrate or feel confused, reach out to your doctor for support and guidance.