A recent Australian study proves that ‘baby brain’ in pregnant women is real. But what about for dads?
Given the amount of pregnancy myths out there, it would be easy to dismiss ‘baby brain’ along with the rest of them.
There’s no doubt that pregnant women dealing with insane amounts of stress, chemical changes, and a growing human inside them are bound to forget a few things – but is ‘baby brain’ itself a real thing?
From personal experience, I can tell you that it certainly feels real. Keys and phones were regularly misplaced by both my wife and I during the pregnancy, and in the 12 months since our son appeared.
But get this – it is also real according to science. The memory slips, distraction and brain-fogginess reported by some pregnant women is indeed a real and measurable condition.
Here Comes the Science
A new study by academics at Deakin University, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found that pregnant women performed worse than non-pregnant women in tests that involved memory and “executive functioning” (things like focusing attention, behaviour inhibition, decision making and forward planning).
The analysis of 20 studies involving more than 1200 women also found that this difference was most pronounced for women in the third trimester of their pregnancy.
The study’s senior author, Associate Professor Linda Byrne, told the ABC that “women often report that multi-tasking seemed to be a bit harder” during pregnancy, but added that the findings should be “interpreted with caution.”
“We’re not talking about impairment that’s going to stop [pregnant women] from doing things day-to-day that they normally would, or functioning in their job,” she said. “It will be more a feeling they have that they’re not quite as on the ball as they normally are.”
Baby Brain for Dads?
Here’s the big question, dads. Can we blame our vast, vast stupidity on science?
The answer: maybe.
It’s been suggested the brains of fathers-to-be see an increase in prolactin (the hormone that stimulates breast milk production) and a decrease in testosterone, followed by a hit of cortisol (the stress hormone) when the bub turns up.
The length of time these effects continue seems tied to the level of involvement dad has in parenting, so it’s a fair bet that we engaged, active papas are all enjoying this heady hormone cocktail even now.
In fact, the writing of this article was interrupted by an interview I had scheduled for this morning and then promptly forgotten, so I can confirm that I’m still under dad brain’s disorganisational thrall. At least, that’s my excuse.
Now, it’s important to qualify all this with a few caveats.
One, importantly, is that none of the pregnant women studied were unable to function. They tested on the lower end of the scale, but they weren’t accidentally putting a nappy on a chicken like a ’60s anti-drug advertisement or anything.
So the decreases measured in certain types of mental agility, while measureable, weren’t enormous.
Another blindingly obvious thing that might explain why fathers report suffering from baby brain as well is that becoming a parent is a seismically life-altering experience.
Even if everything’s ticking along nicely there are baby things to acquire, new skills to develop, space to carve out in the house, work arrangements to formalise, tax adjustments to record and a million other things to preoccupy the parent-to-be.
Simply put, with so many plates spinning some are going to crash to the ground from time to time.
Stress, bad sleep and health issues like morning sickness, postpartum fatigue and post-natal depression also can batter mental acuity before there’s any need to take hormones and brain chemistry into account.
Parenting, after all, is a big job — we should expect that the preparation and first year or so would do a number on us.
What About Returning to Work?
The journal Science did a huge qualitative report of the pressures of coming back after maternity leave, interviewing a vast number of women about their experiences, and found that it’s far more difficult — physically, mentally and emotionally — than has been previously assumed.
This suggests that returning to work is a vastly under-recognised problem, especially for new parents.
The mere knowledge that the end of my wife’s maternity leave was creeping up affected stress levels for both of us.
So what do we do about the perils of baby brain?
For our part, we ensure that we have each others’ back, we don’t panic about forgetting non-vital things, we have a standing order for very strong coffee each morning at the local café and we regularly give thanks to the gods of tech for the Find My Phone function.
And we remind ourselves that this is temporary and that our brains should kick back into the factory settings inside of two years. In the meantime … um, anyone seen my wallet?