BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page was last updated in July 2006We've left it here for reference.More information


Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage
BBC Radio


Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

 

Does pregnancy affect memory?

Baby Brain - fact or fiction?

Lots of women say that their memories suffer during pregnancy but is this anecdotal evidence backed up by research or is it a myth?

Keys are misplaced, phone numbers are forgotten, appointments are missed and strange items purchased without any memory of the event. Many women (and their partners) will recognise these experiences as symptoms of so-called 'baby brain'. During her first pregnancy broadcaster Mariella Frostrup found that "almost everything emptied out of my head for a few months and it was only just coming back when I fell pregnant again, so I was a bit of a casualty of two pregnancies in three years!". Wine writer Jilly Goolden remembers that, during her pregnancy, much of her time was spent standing in the supermarket paralysed by the "the inability to chose between a cabbage and a Brussel sprout."

So does research support the anecdotal evidence? Or is baby brain, officially at least, just a myth? Well, firstly, there isn't a vast amount of data on the subject. What there is comes down on both sides, with some research claiming that pregnant women perform just as well as non-pregnant women in memory tests whilst others claim the opposite.

The baby is eating my brain!

One piece of research from 1997 - now infamous - was unintentionally responsible for a mass frenzy of tabloid interest claiming that here, at last, was scientific proof that pregnancy caused "porridge brain". An interesting, sober and preliminary study about a change in women's brain volume after delivery, conducted by obstetric anaesthetist Anita Holdcroft of the Royal post-Graduate Medical School in London, was reported as 'Health Warning: Having a Baby Can Shrink Your Brain' by the Daily Mirror, and as 'Just As We Thought, Pregnant Women Do Lose Their Minds!' by the Daily Mail.

Unfortunately, the results had been wildly misinterpreted. The study, which looked at just ten women, showed that brain volume increased in the six months after delivery, implying that it was returning to a normal non-pregnant size. Holdcroft also reported that the original decrease was down to the volume of the brain cells decreasing, not the number of cells. In other words, the pregnant women were not losing part of their brain but overall volume was decreasing during pregnancy. Holdcroft added that more research was needed, but that this change could be due to there being less water in the cells, or due to the combined increased nutritional requirement of having to feed mother and child. Nevertheless, lots of (usually female) journalists decided here lay the proof that it's all down to pregnancy - which only served to strengthen the myth. No matter that the study didn't link the change in size to memory loss - nor any cognitive brain function.

Research overview

For a more comprehensive assessment of the evidence, Brett and Baxondale (2003) reviewed both the subjective and objective research there was on the issue. Subjective studies - where pregnant women are asked about any symptoms like forgetfulness - reported overwhelmingly that a significant proportion of women complained of having memory problems, between 50 percent and 80 percent. But memory loss wasn't the only symptom. Confusion, stress, anxiety, poor concentration and increased clumsiness were also part of the general experience, especially in the second or third trimesters.

This sounds impressive but Brett and Baxondale also found that in subjective studies, it seemed clear that more symptoms were reported by those women who were feeling most anxious and stressed by their pregnancies. Happier mums-to-be seemed to have fewer symptoms.

So does objective research into pregnancy and memory loss provide a clearer picture? Well, maybe. Though a number of studies seemed to suggest a definite link between memory deficits and pregnancy, particularly in the third trimester, the authors pointed out that due to the complex nature of memory, it's important to pay careful attention to what type of test is being given, and how the test is carried out, in order to draw any reasonable conclusions about the 'baby brain' phenomenon.

Forgetful or distracted?

Perhaps the most reliable evidence is also the most objective - levels of certain hormones in the body of pregnant women, notably oestrogen and progesterone, skyrocket. Both are linked to memory function - perhaps these are a biological cause of the symptoms many women experience?

Most women insist that pregnancy affects memory and only a fool would argue with them. Objectively, though, the evidence to support that is weak. It doesn't mean the women are wrong, but the methods used to answer the question might be.

Brett and Baxondale prefer to imply that the experience of memory loss is probably, in part, down to the increased psychological stresses of being pregnant. And that this may have some biological underpinnings, because the two main hormones produced in pregnancy are known to have effects on memory. But, studies also show that only certain kinds of memory seem to be affected - working memory and recall (the latter is the part that helps us find names, dates, shopping lists etc).

Perhaps, as some recent studies suggest, baby brain is more down to neurological overload brought on by pregnancy, rather than the biological consequences of being pregnant? All the questions and concerns raised by pregnancy are, after all, far more important than remembering what you were supposed to buy for dinner or where you parked the car. Paying less attention to the more mundane events of life is how many people often react to depression, a bereavement, stress, or just the demands of a hectic lifestyle.

YOUR COMMENT

Megan
I had a very good memory until I became pregnant 12 yrs ago. I had been known for being very much 'on the ball' and pregnancy taught me what it was like to be a 'vague head'. I left my purse on the train (remembered at last minute) and even walked into the wrong flat, having got out of the lift at the wrong floor (and, odd thing, my key worked in their lock, I didn't realise I was in the wrong flat until i was almost in the living room - I scurried out before anyone saw me!). I also nearly burnt our flat down, leaving something on the stove. Luckily I was home and smoke alarms went off, but the kitchen was covered in soot! I definitely agree that stress affects memory. My family has been through a very stressful decade (this was after the pregnancy) and we are all vague on the details. I am often asked to help, as I kept a written record of what went on.

kath
I don't recall any memory problems when pregnant, but definiately do in the extremely sleep deprived months following the birth. I would consider myself to have a good memory, but the early months and then even more so when I went back to work, the sheer exhaustion made it harder to recall even simple things quickly. The fustration of loosing count, half way through spooning milk powder into a bottle. The patience of a collegue who would remind me what it was I was doing when I would walk into a room and then stop, puzzled, because I'd forgotton! Pregnancy is not so bad really.

Wytesoxx
Someone has already commented that you seem to screen out stuff that isn't of use to you while you're involved in pregnancy and early child-rearing; I found this to be true for me. Now I'm aware that the period of time when I was having my kids has made little or no imprint on my memory - I haven't a clue what world events were going on, what music was being played, what fashions were being worn, who won what sporting event, what movies were being made - you name it, I missed it. I'd be useless in a pub quiz - but I retain all manner of trivia from other parts of my life. You'd think, then, that I'd remember every detail of my children's early life, I must have been so focussed on it - but that's a grey blur too. If I hadn't kept a diary and taken loads of photos, I'd have lost most of those early experiences. I was still working full time in a demanding field while my children were small, and the difference I observed in my levels of concentration pre- and post-pregnancy was startling. The old brain just kept veering off the point for years, like opposing poles of two magnets; it's gradually come back to normal now, but it's been a bit of a fight to get there. It was as if I had to retrain my brain, because I'd lost the capacity to think.

Laura
I have a five month old baby and during pregnancy my memory got steadily worse and since having the baby continues to deteriorate! On a couple of ocassions I have repeated something my husband has said literally a few seconds earlier as if it was my own thought, or have forgotten entire conversations. I'll ask people the same question over and over again or walk up the stairs to get something only to stand in the hall at a complete loss as to why I'm there. I don't know if there's really a scientific reason for all of this, perhaps it's preganancy and breastfeeding hormones but, if you ask me, baby brain is exactly that. Your head is so full of thoughts of your baby during and after pregnancy that you don't have as much space for everything else. Just think, before you were pregnant there was nothing else you thought about 24/7 (except perhaps for George Clooney).

shenanigan
My only pregnancy was over 30 years ago, but I remember the return of my memory about a year after the birth. I couldn't remember the details of the actual birth for a nearly year afterwards, when it suddenly was there. When I became menopausal in my early forties, my memory for names, faces, what I supposed to be doing (very embarrassing at work) became unreliable. HRT (oestrogen only as I have had a hysterectomy) has seemed to help but even so, my previously excellent memory is well below what I was used to depend on. Now I have to insist that colleagues email me with their requests, as conversations held in the lift, kitchen, corridor etc are forgotten as soon as over.

Hettie
Having my babies at 40, & 46 yrs of age,I didnt find my memory affected in pregnancy, but afterwards, with lack of sleep,I was definately affected. Focus is narrowed to the essentials of survival for self & babe, & I stopped trying to remember anything else. Now approaching menopause, I am interested in sharpening up & will try those vitamins.I may have to just relearn song titles of the 80's & 90's though - all gone!

Alison
I did not have, what I would call, major memory problems during my pregnancy (although my husband may beg to differ). I had several, potentially serious, health problems during my pregnancy, but did not really seem to get stressed about them. Maybe this made a difference?

Suzanne
I'm only in my eleventh week of pregnancy but I've already experienced a myriad of psychological effects - irritability, clumsiness, sudden weepiness - but memory loss isn't one of them. What's interesting is that until 6 months ago I had serious worries about my memory. My recall in particular was appalling and appeared to be getting worse. Then I started a new, much less stressful job, and my memory has returned. My conclusion is that, for me, poor memory is closely linked to stress. If I were stressed by my pregnancy, I'm sure that this would affect my memory. I'm not, thank god, so all seems to be working fine. But let's see what happens once I have a new baby to look after...

Pamela
My brain certainly suffered during pregnancy; not just forgetting things but putting the bread in the fridge and the milk in the breadbox, turning on the oven light instead of the heat and wondering why dinner didn't cook, and so on. As for post-menopause, I so wish I hadn't stopped taking HRT! My memory has deteriorated severely. The problem is with prospective memory (what I'm about to do in the next few minutes or near future, or whether I just did something such as take my pills or lock the back door) rather than retrospective memory - I can still remember most of the stuff I know. The best solution I have found for this is to take phosphatidylserine (PS) with vitamins B5 and B6, this has helped enormously.

Rosina
I have already commented on this in 'Forgetting'. I just feel that having a baby is such a big thing in the woman's life, 'nature' (hormones or what?) blocks out everything which is not necessary to the survival of mother and child. Tiredness could have a lot to do with it too. Who remembers 'unimportant' details when we are tired? I'm glad I didn't have to teach to the final weeks as younger women have to do now. I'm sure I would have forgotten books to take home, essential equipment, room changes, details about the children etc etc. A nightmare!

Mari Shackell
I did not have the experience of becoming forgetful during pregnancy at all. I was just the same as usual - I think my memory is generally good. I was not stressed in pregnancy but took it very easy. I also slept more than usual. Now I am 55 and approaching the menopause - without medication. My memory is still generally pretty good although I more often forget items on a (mental or actual) list - eg a shopping list or jobs-to-do list. This may be because these things do not interest me. Interesting things I remember as well as I ever did. The only thing that has really ever adversely affected my memory was smoking cannabis. This was a long time ago (over 30 years ago.) I did not like it and soon gave it up, after which my memory quickly returned to normal.

Rami (website team)
Thanks for your contribution. The Woman's Hour team might have more information for you. Studies on the effects of using HRT to address memory problems are at best inconclusive. HRT has been associated with reducing memory loss in some studies but is also known to cause serious side effects and may even cause memory loss. It is best to seek medical advice before any course of action. These links will give you some information though: research from Adelaide University research from Standford University. It's worth noting also that the British Medical Journal list HRT as unlikely to help with the symptoms of dementia based on available research BMJ best treatments. Hope this helps. Please note that the BBC has no control over the content of external sites.

Marie Kelly
Hi I have been listening to feedback comments on Woman's Hour's recent feature on the perimenopause and the menopause and mental affects of this hormonal change (akin to pregnancy). As a woman entering menopause and now on HRT I am hoping that I will return "to normal" - the mental affects up to now have been worrying and I absolutely agree with the woman who made refer to the tricks your mind plays on you - particularly the memory and those worrying instants where in meetings you speak and then realise you are unable to say the words you want to, or the look you get just before you realise that you have repeated yourself from earlier and so on. This made me wonder about my sanity. It is too early for me to know if HRT will help in the future but I am concerned that if it doesnt - will I ever return to normal and if not....

Name:

Comment:

The BBC may edit your comments before publishing. Comments will usually appear within one working day.



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy