Surefire Ways to Beat Mommy Brain
A favorite story among my family dates back to when my sister was about 18 months old. One night, much to our delight, she stood on her tiptoes and walked daintily across the living room. “How adorable!” we all squealed. Within a couple of minutes, we realized the true reason my sister had perfected her ballet pointe technique: My mom had forgotten to diaper her after her bath, and poop was now running down her leg.
My seven-year-old self laughed back then, but today, with a two-year-old and nine-month-old in tow, I commiserate. Whether you’re a first-time parent or a seasoned pro, lack of sleep and too many thoughts running around your head can lead to fogginess and forgetfulness, often referred to as "mommy brain."
“Many moms describe feeling forgetful, foggy or overwhelmed after they have children, and while mommy brain isn’t a technical term, there’s evidence that some brain changes do occur in pregnancy and motherhood,” says Kristin Budde, MD, MPH, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University.
The term, "mommy brain," may sound like a flippant way to explain away common things all parents deal with, so let's first highlight the studies that are finally backing up the reality of what moms go through.
Research from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience found that motherhood permanently alters the brain and its response to hormone therapy later in life. And another study out of Spain revealed how pregnancy causes long-lasting alterations in brain structure, likely related to improving the mother’s ability to protect and interact with her child. Although mommy brain may sound harmless, the reality is that moms (especially new ones) need to have their brains firing at maximum capacity.
Luckily, here are some ways to help combat the problem.
Learn a New Skill
Generally speaking, using new and different parts of your brain for new skills helps make new connections, says Dr. Budde, and studies back this up. One published in Psychological Science found that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances memory function in older adulthood.
According to the study, these new activities should activate working memory, episodic memory and reasoning in order to produce the best results. Dr. Budde suggests trying things like quilting, baking or hiking.
A study from Georgia Institute of Technology showed that an intense workout of as little as 20 minutes can enhance episodic memory — also known as long-term memory for previous events — by about 10 percent in healthy young adults. Even though the study used weight exercises, the author noted that resistance exercises would likely produce the same results. “Exercise can improve your memory, attention and executive function, but it can also improve your mood, which helps make everything seem a little brighter,” says Dr. Budde.
Jonathan Cerf, CEO of Colorado-based Core Progression Elite Personal Training, suggests simple body weight workouts for busy moms that can be done from home or in an office. “I like this routine because it can be done at one time, or split up through the day,” he says.
Repeat three rounds of 15 reps for some or each of the following exercises:
– Body weight squats (either through simple knee bends or sitting in a chair and standing back up)
– Dips off a chair or coffee table bending at the elbows to work the back of your upper arms
– Lunges in place, alternating legs
– Leg lowers on your back for core (where you lie on your back and lower your legs from 90 degrees down to the floor)
– Superman on your stomach by lifting your arms and legs up to work the lower core of your back
Play (Certain) Games
Studies have shown that some games that involve manipulation-processing skills can help make people less forgetful. For example, one study conducted in Canada and the United States found that, after three months of playing Tetris, gray matter (the mixture of brain cells and blood vessels responsible for processing information in the brain) was thicker in the brains of those playing the games.
Take some time during a break or before bed each night to play a game like Tetris, or to do a crossword or puzzle. Dr. Budde also suggests learning to play chess or some other game with complicated rules, which would combine learning a new skill with game playing.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
One of the lesser-known reasons that we experience mommy brain is because raising our children can trigger feelings from our own childhood, says Kate Orson, a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor and author. “So if we find ourselves getting stressed and overwhelmed, what can be going on under the surface is that we are feeling strong emotions about what happened to us when we were young,” she adds.
To work through those feelings, Orson suggests allowing yourself to reflect on them through journaling or even speaking with a therapist.
Lean on Your Friends
Orson also suggests something called listening partnerships, in which two parents get together, away from their children, to take turns talking and listening about how their parenting experience is going.
“Venting is a powerful way to let go of emotions that may be clogging up your brain so you can think more clearly,” she says.
Besides using your friends as surrogate counselors to talk about parenting with, Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Farmingdale, N.J.-based Maple Holistics, suggests staying in touch with your friends — even those without kids — for additional reasons.
“Maintaining our human interactions may seem impossible with a new baby,” she says. “Suddenly, all you want to do is sleep when you have a rare spare second. That being said, it’s important to keep up your social interactions. Healthy relationships are crucial in improving mental health issues like memory and focus.”
Create Routine However You Can
More so than anything else in life, having a baby completely wipes out our routines, says Backe. As such, it’s important to develop a routine wherever we can. “Restock diapers every night, keep your essentials like your phone, wallet and keys in the same place religiously and meal-prep whenever possible,” she suggests.
After all, the last thing you want to do when you’re 10 minutes late and your baby is screaming is to spend an extra 20 minutes searching for the sunglasses that are on your head.
Drink Green Tea
An easy (and tasty) thing to incorporate into your routine that just might help fight that fogginess is a morning and evening cup of green tea.
“By drinking green tea regularly — multiple times a day is ideal — the phytonutrients in this powerhouse beverage stimulates the production of new brain cells,” says Backe. “It also contains antioxidants and a small amount of caffeine to increase your focus and productivity.”
Load Up on DHA
If you thought you were done with DHA supplements after giving birth, you might want to think again. Because an omega-3 called DHA is vital for the development of baby’s eye and brain, the placenta extracts it from the mother’s own blood and concentrates them in her baby’s circulation during late pregnancy, according to Dr. Sarah Brewer, a general practitioner and registered medical nutritionist based in Guernsey, Channel Islands.
“As a result, a baby’s levels of DHA are twice as high as its mother’s,” she says. “If maternal levels of DHA are low, some DHA is also obtained from the mother’s richest store: her own brain. This may account for the slight shrinkage in maternal brain size seen in some pregnant women, and is believed to account for the poor concentration, forgetfulness and vagueness that many women experience during the last few months of pregnancy and afterwards, especially if you are breastfeeding.”
In fact, a newborn baby is unable to produce DHA from essential fatty acids until at least four months of age, so they often rely on their mother’s breast milk, which once again depletes her own stores. To combat the loss, aim for at least two servings a week of DHA-full oily fish, or try a supplement.
Get Some Sleep
Yes, we can hear you laughing. Getting more sleep might seem completely impossible given your new set of circumstances, but hear us out.
“It’s critical to get some sleep, and since it’s often difficult to get a full night of sleep, 20-minute recharge naps at intervals throughout the day are important if you can get coverage,” says Dr. Jennifer Guttman, an author with more than 20 years of experience specializing in cognitive behavior therapy for children, adolescents and adults. “Alternatively, as appealing as it is to get chores done when your baby is napping, take advantage of that time to rest your brain as well. When they nap, you nap — you will be thankful you did because your efficiency will be improved.”
Take Some “Me” Time
Again, new moms often find that taking time for themselves is hard to do, but it’s just as important as sleeping whenever you can.
“Take some time for yourself to remind yourself that you’re a person, not only a mom now,” says Dr. Guttman. “This will also help recharge your brain. Take a bubble bath, watch one episode of TV, take a long shower or catch up on a phone call with a friend.”
According to this study, doodling aids in cognitive performance and recollection. “Basically, those tiny drawings of ‘nothing’ can help you get back into focus when you find yourself spacing out,” says Backe. “Doodling can help your brain recall details — something every mommy brain needs help with — and it’s fun, too.”
Try keeping a small sketchpad in your purse or at your desk to take out when the urge strikes.
Celebrate the Changes
The brain of a mom-to-be undergoes significant emotional, sensory and cognitive changes into motherhood, says Jenny Woo, M.Ed., MBA, a Harvard-trained researcher in cognitive neuroscience and researcher at the Working Memory & Plasticity Lab.
“Ironically, there’s often a negative connotation about the mommy brain around being forgetful or emotional,” says Dr. Woo. “I actually advocate for more self-compassion and celebration of what pregnancy and new mothers are going through. New mothers have a higher vulnerability for mood disorders as a result of hormonal changes. Self-compassion activities would alleviate pressures and guilt.”