Donders Wonders Blog

Is “pregnancy brain” a thing?

Some women are more forgetful during pregnancy, while others feel the same as before. Scientific evidence shows that some forms of memory function can be impaired during pregnancy, but this is not the case for all cognitive processes. If pregnancy forgetfulness is in fact a thing, we should be careful with how we, as a society, interpret this.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Conflicting accounts on pregnancy-related forgetfulness

Anecdotally, many women report feeling “foggy” during pregnancy: they have difficulty remembering dates or appointments, and they forget things such as their keys or their wallets. This phenomenon seems to be so common that it’s known as “pregnancy brain.”

On the other hand, other women experience no fogginess or forgetfulness. They say their mind is as sharp as ever, and some moms-to-be even claim to be more creative during pregnancy. So, does pregnancy impair cognitive function?

The science on pregnancy and memory

Unsurprisingly, not all studies agree on this topic. Many studies (but not all) show that cognitive function can decline during pregnancy. This meta-analysis article reviewed the available research up until 2007 and concluded that pregnancy does in fact impair memory function. The largest deficits were for free recall (e.g., recalling a difficult word or name from memory) and working memory (e.g., keeping in mind a just-seen 6-digit number). However, other types of memory were unaffected by pregnancy.

A more recent study extended these findings. These researchers also found that recall was worse during pregnancy, but they observed that recognition (e.g., reporting which items have been seen before) was not worse. This suggests that even if some memory processes are impaired during pregnancy, this is not the case for all cognitive functions.

Disentangling the causes of pregnancy-related memory impairments

One important caveat is that it’s unclear why pregnancy causes memory impairments. It may be related to the major hormonal changes taking place during pregnancy, but this study failed to find a relationship between hormone levels and memory test scores. Perhaps more importantly, many women find it difficult to get adequate sleep, especially as the pregnancy progresses. Sleep deprivation is known to impair many kinds of cognitive functions, so it could be contributing to the observed memory deficits in pregnant women.

Emotionally charged responses to “pregnancy brain”

Pregnancy-related forgetfulness, a.k.a. pregnancy brain, has become an emotionally charged topic among pregnant women. On the one hand, some women believe it is a damaging stereotype to portray pregnant women as forgetful because this may lead, for instance, co-workers to regard pregnant women as somewhat mentally impaired or less intelligent. This would make it more difficult for pregnant women to do their work well and to be taken seriously by society in general.

On the other hand, other women would like any temporary memory impairment to be recognized and understood at their workplace. They say they’d feel more comfortable knowing that if they forget something, it won’t be held against them but rather it will be attributed to their (current but temporary) pregnancy.

There seems to be value in both points of view. It would be good if pregnant women could feel understood by their employer, but this shouldn’t lead to their being perceived as less capable or intelligent than non-pregnant people. This may be a tricky balance to find, but knowing the facts about pregnancy-related forgetfulness can help our society understand and support pregnant women.


Original language: English

Author: Marisha Manahova

Buddy: Julija Vaitonyte

Editor: Christienne Gonzales Damatac

Translator: Jill Naaijen

Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Photo by Andre Furtado from Pexels (Creative Commons license)

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