By Connie Matthiessen
Soon into your pregnancy, don't be surprised if you feel foggy-brained and forgetful. You may find yourself misplacing your purse, forgetting to return phone calls, or going off to fetch something only to discover you've forgotten what you are looking for. At work, you may catch yourself daydreaming through meetings or staring out the window rather than completing that report.
Whatever form your absentmindedness takes, don't worry: You're not going through early senility, your condition isn't permanent, and you're certainly not alone.
Many mothers-to-be call these occasional slips of memory "mommy brain" or "pregnancy amnesia." Even very organized and efficient women say they are distracted and find it harder to maintain their focus and concentration during pregnancy.
In fact, according to a report published in The Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, 82 percent of the women surveyed reported some type of absentmindedness or inability to concentrate during pregnancy. Of those women, 68 percent reported general changes in recall or memory, 54 percent had problems concentrating or paying attention, and 52 percent experienced absentmindedness.
What causes absentmindedness during pregnancy?
There is much debate on the topic, but many experts believe changing hormone levels are to blame. Hormones have a powerful influence on our bodies -- including the brain -- and pregnancy is a time of dramatic hormonal changes. In a process that is not completely understood, these hormonal shifts seem to cause diminished memory and changes in thinking. Many women find that they are similarly affected at other times when hormones are fluctuating: before their monthly periods and during menopause.
Some scientists, according to the Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, have suggested that pregnancy brain haze may be worsened by iron deficiency and stress, but these theories have not been proven.
Whatever the cause, forgetfulness is likely to worsen as a pregnancy progresses (thus the term "last-trimester fog"). Along with the hormonal changes you experience, you may be preoccupied with the prospect of childbirth and of caring for a new baby. Worries about difficult labor, your personal finances, the baby's health, and how you will handle motherhood may be more pronounced, adding to the distraction. Sleep is often erratic during pregnancy, and you may become even more forgetful if you are tired during the day.
What can I do about forgetfulness?
Remember, being "spacey" or forgetful is temporary and normal during pregnancy. The authors of the Advanced Nursing report found that many pregnant women were not warned about it, which led them to believe it was somehow a personal problem. They were at higher risk for self-image problems, the report suggests, and not having a plan to cope with cognitive changes raised their anxiety levels. One woman in the study had a particularly rough time: she reported bumping into doors and walls, dropping kitchen utensils, burning herself, twisting her ankle, and spraying herself accidentally with a poisonous weed-killer because of her poor coordination and inability to concentrate.
The authors recommend that practitioners discuss forgetfulness during pregnancy with their patients and that information about absentmindedness be included in pregnancy education materials and childbirth classes.
So the good news is that your absentmindedness is perfectly normal. The bad news is that it is likely to last for several months to come (even after the baby is born, sleep deprivation will continue to fog your brain), so you may as well accept it and do your best to work around it.
Remember that your entire body -- including your brain -- is engaged in a very important task: making a baby. In fact, pregnancy expert Paula Spencer, author of The Parenting Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, suggests that absentmindedness during pregnancy is a natural and important part of preparing for motherhood.
A mother's focus shifting away from herself may be "a subconscious way of tuning into the baby and the life changes ahead, a gentle reminder that there's more to life than the 1,001 mundane tasks that ordinarily clog your brain," Spencer writes.
Preparing to forget
Here are some practical steps you can take to make life easier:
- Get organized. Maybe you've never had to make lists or rely on a day planner, but if you're reading this article, you probably do now. Buy a calendar or a palm pilot. Keep lists, and post them in obvious places. Develop some systems you can rely on (placing your keys on a hook by the door, for example). These systems will come in handy as you face the challenges of motherhood in the days ahead.
- Don't overdo it. This is not the time to put in 12-hour days at work, volunteer for a complicated project, stay up all night, or host a visit from your husband's second cousin's aunt and her three children. Use your pregnancy as a reason to say no -- there will be plenty of time to pitch in and do your part in the future.
- Get plenty of rest and eat well. Sleep in when you can -- even if you got your eight hours the night before. Letting yourself get run-down will only further cloud your mind.
- Treat yourself. If you find you crave more time for yourself, indulge that desire. It is normal to feel this way, and giving yourself an opportunity to daydream and be spacey may help you be more clearheaded when you go back to your office or attend that conference. Take a leisurely bath or spend a day walking at the beach and writing in your journal. It also may help to talk with other pregnant women. Ask your practitioner or pregnancy resource center for information about pregnancy support groups or childbirth classes.
Finally, don't forget that this is a special time in your life. Maybe you aren't as effective at work as you have been in the past, but you will have a chance to make it up in the future. It is all right to be forgetful and preoccupied.
You have another very important job at the moment, and this job deserves as much of your attention as you can provide.
Murkoff, Heidi et al. What to Expect When You're Expecting. 4th Edition.
Merck Manual of Geriatrics. Chapter 119: Menopause. http://www.merck.com/mrkshared/mm_geriatrics/sec14/ch119.jsp
Loyola University Health System. Hormones During Pregnancy. http://www.luhs.org/health/topics/pregnant/hormone.htm
Parsons, C. et al. Self-reported cognitive change during pregnancy. The Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing. Vol. 9, No.1
Spencer, Paula, with the editors of Parenting. Parenting Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. Ballantine Books.