The Science of “Mom Brain”

Are you constantly losing your keys? Or maybe your train of thought mid-sentence – every sentence? Maybe you’re like me and chalk it up to “mom brain.” But is “mom brain” real, or just something we tell ourselves to feel better when we forget to actually put laundry detergent in the washing machine to clean our dirty clothes or find the milk in the pantry? (That can’t just be me, right?) Today, we’re talking with moms and a researcher about the science behind “mom brain.” So if you find yourself being extra forgetful these days, don’t worry. You’ll quickly hear you’re not alone.

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Episode Transcript

Natalie Gross 0:07
Are you constantly losing your keys? Or maybe your train of thought mid sentence? Every sentence? Maybe you're like me and just chalk it up to mom brain. But is mom brain real? Or is it just something we tell ourselves to feel better when we forget to actually put laundry detergent in the washing machine to clean our dirty clothes? Or find the milk in the pantry? That can't just be me right? Well, today we're talking with moms and a researcher about the science behind so called mom brain. So if you find yourself being extra forgetful these days, don't worry. You'll quickly hear you are not alone. This is Newbies!

Natalie Gross 1:15
Welcome to Newbies! Newbies is your online on-the-go support group guiding new mothers like you through their baby's first year. I'm Natalie gross mom to a three year old boy and a girl on the way. We've got a great show today talking about the science of mom brain. Now if you haven't already, please be sure to visit our website at You can subscribe to our weekly newsletter, which keeps you updated on all the episodes that we release each week. Another great way to stay updated is to hit that subscribe button in whatever podcast app you're listening in right now. And if you're looking for a way to get even more involved with our show, then you can check out our membership club. It's called Mighty Moms. And that's where we chat more about the topics discussed here on our show. And it's also an easy way to learn about our recordings so that you can join us. So let's meet the mamas joining our conversation today. So tell us your name a little bit about you and your family as we get started. Trisha, do you want to kick us off?

Tricia Murphy 2:09
For sure. So my name is Tricia Murphy and I have been married to my husband we actually just celebrated a 11 year and we have three kiddos, Colin who was our oldest he is six. Carter is four. And then our spunky Princess we like to call them McKenna she is two and a half.

Natalie Gross 2:32
Jamie, what about you?

Jamie Fleury 2:34
Well, I am Jamie Fleury and we've got four kids 7, 5, 3, 1 And another one on the way.

Natalie Gross 2:43
Oh, congratulations, Lydia.

Lydia Eldridge 2:46
Hey, yes, I am Lydia Eldridge. My husband and I have been married for well going on 13 years. And we have six kids. We literally just had our sixth one.

Cindy Barha 3:03

Lydia Eldridge 3:06
Thank you. He is three and a half months old... four months old. Oh my gosh.

Natalie Gross 3:12
Is that mom brain you can't remember?

Lydia Eldridge 3:15
It's tricky because it because he was a preemie and so um, so it's like, I've got two dates going on in my head. And so I guess like technically gestation Aliy he's like, not even, you know, he's like, maybe a month old. So anyway, our oldest will be 12 soon and then we have a 9, 8, 7 year olds, so yes, like they were all back to back. And then we have a three year old and then obviously our baby.

Natalie Gross 3:46
Oh, wonderful. Well, thank you all so much for being here today. And of course we're talking about mom brain. So let's have sort of an icebreaker, I want to hear your best mom brain stories. Give us your best one before we take a quick break. Whoever wants to jump in can go first.

Lydia Eldridge 4:03
Okay, so this is Lydia. So I was thinking about this the other day and I just started laughing so hard because I swear this is the best one. One morning I woke up before the kids and I was like I can't find my phone and I thought I had dropped it under the bed and or something and that was you know looking for it and my husband was already gone for work. And I'm frantically looking for it. I'm trying to not wake the kids. So I'm you know trying to keep lights off and using a flashlight and I'm like I cannot find this and I'm you know trying to go through my head of Okay, where did I have it last house like well had it on the bed and you know, and I'm just going through everywhere. It could be probably spent about an hour looking for it. And then finally, I decided to text my husband and told him I can't find my phone. Can you please call it oh and his reply I was dot, dot dot. And in that moment, I was like, Oh, my goodness, I spent the last hour looking for my phone. With my phone in my hand. I was using the flashlights on my phone to look for my phone. So....

Natalie Gross 5:22
I have definitely done that. So needless to say, My husband had a good laugh about that. That's hilarious. Trisha, what about you?

Tricia Murphy 5:34
Okay, so ironically, mine is kind of related to a phone also. But it wasn't mine. So my husband and I are very consistent. We worked out six days a week, like even when I was pregnant, that's what we did. And so I just happened to have gotten a new pair of workout shoes. And I, I don't remember why I have the box with me and my old shoes. But honestly, I don't remember why I was probably like, five months pregnant with my second at this point. So my first son would have been 20 ish months around there. If I can try to do the math. Yeah, she's pretty spot on. Um, and so yeah, 20 months and then five months pregnant. And so I got home, I had my old gym shoes, and then my new gym shoes I was wearing and then I had the box. So they set them on the counter. And my husband was in the living room and he was like, hey, Trisha, you know, my phone is on the charger in the kitchen. Do you mind just bringing me my phone? Sure, not a problem, grabs what I thought was his phone and brought it over. And I remember just standing in front of him holding out what I thought was his phone and he's just looking at me. And I finally realized I was giving him my old dirty gym shoes. Just standing there and finally I looked down and I was like, we both just started laughing. I was like, I'm that's not what you asked for. Nobody wants smelly gym shoes. So that was probably my my shining moment for sure.

Natalie Gross 7:06
Shining moment, love that. Alright, Jamie, your turn.

Jamie Fleury 7:11
Oh, goodness. Y'all laughed at the end of yours. I cried at the end of mine. I was laughing though. Oh, one of my boys in the potty training time when his bed one night and so I grabbed the sheets. I put them in the washer forgot to turn it on. Didn't know I'd forgotten. Later I came back when I thought it was done. The sheets were all wet. So I figured they'd washed so I threw in the dryer forgot to turn the dryer found on that bed time to put them on his bed and was sitting there bawling because I hadn't dried them in time for bedtime. And that's when my husband came and took one with the sheet seems like honey, these things aren't even washed. Oh. Oh dear. That was that was a rough one. Man. I laugh about it now. It was just wasn't funny at the time.

Natalie Gross 7:59
Yeah, I get that. Well, thank you mamas so much for sharing. When we come back, we will be meeting our expert Dr. Cindy Barha who is going to dive into the research on this topic and share her best mom brain story. So stay with us.

Natalie Gross 8:20
Today on Newbies, we are talking about mom brain and the science behind it. Is it a real thing? Well, our expert guest today is Dr. Cindy Barha her a behavioral neuroscientist who received her PhD from the University of British Columbia. Currently, she is a postdoctoral fellow funded by the Alzheimer's Association and brain Canada and her research focuses on understanding how different pharmacological and lifestyle interventions can promote women's brain health and how previous pregnancies and hormones can alter the effectiveness of these interventions later in life. And in addition to being a scientist Cindy is also a mom to two rambunctious boys ages three and one. So Cindy, thank you so much for joining us. And welcome to Newbies!

Cindy Barha 9:02
Thank you for having me.

Natalie Gross 9:03
So simply put, how does pregnancy and having a baby change our brains for better and for worse?

Cindy Barha 9:10
Well, that's a great question, especially after listening to all those stories. So we do know from years of research that our brains really do change during pregnancy. And so I'd say one of the earliest things that researchers found was that overall, our brain shrinks by about 4% during pregnancy. So a more recent study in 2017, by a group in the Netherlands, led by Elseline Hoekzema looked at were actually in the brain that this shrinkage was happening. And so what they did was they put women into a big scanner called an MRI that takes pictures of our brains. And they did this before a group before a group of women were pregnant right after they delivered and then about two years later, and what they found was that pregnancy actually shrunk the brain's gray matter. So that's that sort of pinkish gray tissue that has all those brain cells in it. And the specific areas of the Breathing that actually shrunk her most play really important roles in processing and responding to social cues or social signals, which we called social cognition. And we know that social cognition is really important for caregiving behaviors. So in that study, they found that this shrinkage was seen still two years postpartum. And a newer study by that same groups showed that this was still apparent six years after delivery. So I know this sounds bad shrinkage in the brain obviously doesn't sound like a good thing. But researchers actually think this is because it's showing the fine tuning sort of the connections between the brain cells. And it's making that Mom Brain more sensitive to their baby, and better able to sort of cope with all that other stuff that comes with being a new parent, you know, things like stress and trying to figure out what that nonverbal baby actually wants. So I would say in other words, it's kind of getting rid of all that extra stuff that isn't needed in your brain in order to make a better or more efficient parental brain.

Natalie Gross 10:59
That is so cool. Love knowing. So this forgetfulness, right that we often refer to as Mom Brain, it's not just us being overtired. Is it hormonal, then or, you know, kind of how do we how can we understand that?

Cindy Barha 11:14
Well, okay, so I'm an endocrinologist by training. So of course, I think everything is hormonal, I think hormones are involved in everything. But it surely doesn't other things like lifestyle are also possible. So you know, depending on which home and you're looking at, they do increase two to 1000 times normal levels during pregnancy. So for example, estradiol and progesterone, which are normally in our bodies increased by about 30 to 70 fold in comparison to you know, the non pregnant levels. And there's another hormone called cortisol, which you've may have heard of, it's what we call the stress hormone, it increases by about two to four times compared to non pregnant levels by your third trimester. So right now, we don't know which of these hormones is actually involved in these effects that we're seeing in the brain. Of course, we need more research. But you know, I would say there's other possible reasons for the changes in the brain because of pregnancy, such as you said, like disruptions in sleep declines in exercise, even the sex of the fetus that's being carried could have an effect. So Neil Watson here at Simon Fraser University found that if you were carrying a boy that was associated with better memory, than if you were carrying a girl.

Natalie Gross 12:22
Oh, interesting.

Cindy Barha 12:25
Yeah, I thought that's one of those findings that you're kind of like kind of sticks with you for a long time.

Natalie Gross 12:28
While I'm pregnant with a girl so that explains it, just imagine if it was a boy. Yeah. Well, it does mom brain, you know, or there's this feeling that we call mom brain that really starts in pregnancy pregnancy brain, does it ever really go away? And if so, when?

Cindy Barha 12:46
Well, I would say to me, that's the million dollar question. So in that study, they talked about from 2017. From the Netherlands, there was another part of the brain called the hippocampus, which we know is vital for memory. And what they saw that was that right after pregnancy, the hippocampus also shrunk in volume, just like the other parts of the brain. But what's really cool is that by two years after delivery, when they looked back at those moms brains, the hippocampal volume had rebounded. It wasn't quite at pre-pregnancy levels, but it had gotten better had gotten bigger again. And we know in some rodent studies, so we're looking at rats that once those pups are weaned. So once their babies are weaned, and they no longer need to be fed by the mom. And in rats, that weaning actually means that the pups don't live with her moms anymore. Those moms actually do even better on learning and memory tests than they would have done before they had babies. So another thing I would say about when these changes go away is thinking about what happens decades after your last pregnancy. So this is research that's, you know, really in its early stages, but myself and others have started to see that the maternal wave brains of the mom brain decades after it had last been pregnant seems to show less signs of aging. And actually, they can do better on tests of learning memory in older age than any of their counterparts that had never given birth. So it's not a straightforward answer. There's lots of different factors, like, you know, the number of pregnancies seems to make a difference things like your last age of pregnancy, what type of you know, what are you talking about memory versus other types of thinking? So yeah, I think I mean, I can't give you a straight answer. It seems that it lasts a long time, but that might be a good thing.

Natalie Gross 14:24
Yeah. So before we take another quick break, do you have any funny mom brain stories of your own that you want to share?

Cindy Barha 14:32
I can't remember any. Oh, I'm just kidding. My husband actually loves to tell this time when I was pregnant with our first child. And I was asking him to I think load the washing machine but I couldn't remember the word for washing machine. Instead I ended up yelling at him and saying the dishwasher for under undies get get the stuff in there. It was very specific apparently undies are what dishwashers are for...

Natalie Gross 14:54
I love that. Awesome. You guys are all making me feel so much better about my mom brain, I typically just like will lose my lose my thought in the middle of a sentence as I just did. So, anyway, we are going to take another quick break. And when we come back, we will keep hearing from all of our wonderful guests today. So stay tuned.

Natalie Gross 15:21
We are continuing our discussion today with Dr. Cindy Barhaand our panel of moms, Tricia, Jamie and Lydia. So moms, any thoughts on some of the research we just heard about from Cindy, how did you feel that your brains change after babies for good or for bad?

Lydia Eldridge 15:37
Well, I thought it was interesting, you know what she said about, you know, gender playing a role, because I definitely, with having had four boys and two girls, I definitely noticed a difference when I was pregnant with my girls. And my second girl, I was a teacher at the time. And I just remember constantly forgetting my students names. Like I just, I'm like, I've had these students for three years now. And now I'm suddenly forgetting names. And it just it was mind blowing that I was just forgetting the names constantly. And so when she said gender, you know, played the difference out or played a role. I was like, wow, okay, yeah, that makes sense now, but I also wonder, I wanted to ask her, I feel like with a cuz I had three of my boys kind of back to back and I feel like, then again, gender might have not not played a role there. It just might have been the back to back pregnancy. So that was probably more a hormonal thing, because my body didn't have a child have time to adjust and reset, because I had three boys almost back to back.

Cindy Barha 16:49
Absolutely, I would say absolutely. So inter birth interval has does have an impact. We been trying to look at that in some of the cohorts that we have access to that we have like number of pregnancies and pregnancy complications, and also being able to see how many years or even months between pregnancies and whether that has an effect. And I can tell you it does, it absolutely does. So there is a reason I guess. I mean, I never realized why. Like the doctors always told you to wait 18 months, he's here in Canada, they say 18 months. And I was like why? Well, the reason I thought was just so you wouldn't go crazy having two littles, but there's a reason your body needs time to get the, you know, the fat stores back because nursing takes so much from us, or if you if you're not nursing, just been having children take so much from us. And you need those hormones to sort of balance out again. So having them close together is a stress, a greater stress stress on your body than if they were a little bit spaced out. So I would say definitely plays a role.

Natalie Gross 17:45
Interesting, Jamie, any thoughts?

Jamie Fleury 17:48
I've got three boys and one girl and we don't know what this baby is yet. It's too early. But they're I also noticed that difference between forgetting my words here.

Natalie Gross 18:02
It's a girl then!

Jamie Fleury 18:08
Everybody wants another girl. I've been informed by everybody in the family. But this one's got to be another girl. So that's hilarious. Yeah.

Natalie Gross 18:16
Trisha, I would love to hear your perspective on this because you know, your first son was adopted, if I recall. And then you know, you're also a biological parent. So I would be curious to hear your perspective.

Tricia Murphy 18:27
Yeah. So it was funny listening first to Lydia talk, because so I like I mentioned I have two boys and a girl. And my two children that are biological, they are two days away from 18 months apart. So I can tell you finding out I was pregnant when my second was nine months old was quite a shock. And I just, you know, with like, Lydia, you're talking about with teaching and forgetting your students names. And honestly, when you said that I was like, Oh, my soul. I did that all the time. And I had I was going to public school. So I had about 120 students. And so I just chalked it up to the fact that I don't know I just some kids look like some kids, whatever. But when you said that I was like, oh, yeah, but and I also would probably chalk it up to I was very sick when I was pregnant with my daughter like growing up three times a day before 10am every day and to the point that like if I threw up twice before I left for school, my husband would cheer me on he's like you only got one or two to go nice job. It was she was a pistol girl. But I will say so. Yes. Our first it was a whirlwind of an experience with the adoption. In just a quick, quick backstory, so it was January of 2016 that we were approved for adoption. We went to the agency we went through kind of just an orientation. We went to that orientation in February, we had our home study done by April, and then got a call Memorial Day weekend of May not only did this birth mom pick you, she's in labor get out to Texas now. So we had four months, almost the day of signing up, we were approved to holding our son. So it was we started out with kind of a whirlwind with him. And then in Texas, the relinquishment rights are 48 hours after birth. So everything was fine two days later. And, you know, one thing that really stuck with me is after experiencing, going through an adoption, and having biological children, I felt like, there were so many similarities. As far as the emotions, you feel the just the difference that you feel in knowing that this child is your responsibility that this little life depends on you. I mean, we have not been able to be around his biological mother, we, we we had talked to her on a Wednesday, she gave birth on Sunday, we had talked to her for 10 minutes on the phone. So we were strangers to our son when he was first born, right. And so just realizing that all of a sudden, we we were parents to this little boy. And I'm still looking at the time. So he was born in May I use the summer kind of as my maternity leave, and went back in August. And I just remember, with teaching, I remember looking at my husband, I'm like, I can't do what I used to do. I was like, I'm don't feel organized enough. I feel like I'm letting my students down. Like, I was really, really questioning myself as an educator, just thinking on, like, just looking back, I'm like, Oh, my goodness, part. If that was just your you do you, you know, there's this little life that's dependent on you. So I still definitely obviously not during the pregnancy period with him. But I felt like post, you know, you're still going through. The only difference really, I felt was I wasn't recovering from delivering a child. I wasn't nursing. So those are two obvious differences. But the on the flip side, you know, we were dealing with still working with a social worker, you still have to go through home study things, you still have to keep up with x, y and d for the courts to be able to approve you six months after. So while he was legally ours, it needs to be acknowledged by the courts six months after they're born, as well. So there's definitely those different aspects there. Where there's obvious differences. But there were so many similarities that I felt like I saw as well, compared to being pregnant and delivery, our children as well.

Natalie Gross 23:09
Yeah, that's really interesting. Thank you so much for sharing, Trisha. Well, as we wrap up here, I don't want this to be all negative. I mean, we heard about all the superpowers we have as moms, right. So I want to leave our listeners with some words of encouragement for new moms who have been there before, whether it's about Mom Brain, or just kind of getting through this first year. So moms, you go first, and then Cindy, I'll let you have the last word. You know, as far

Lydia Eldridge 23:33
You know, as far as like encouragement, I will say, you know, as your children get older, it does get easier. I mean, okay, I take that back, it's you, you go through different ways of easy and hard, it just becomes different. And my mom brain even becomes different, that at least it has for me. And I have found that as a mom of six kids having some who are older now and having a new one, you know, my older kids and my husband can help fill in the gaps where I'm forgetful. And so I would say you know, definitely like leaning on your, your spouse and your community. And if you don't have a community find one, they can help you and, you know, and it's just encouraging to know that it's, it's not just you, like all moms experiences and you know, it's not just to and so like reach out, you know, if you are you know, struggling with a respond brain or or anything else, reach out because you're not alone, and you will find the help. There are people willing to help.

Tricia Murphy 24:44
I agree with you 100% Lydia. And mine's kind of derailing but it's still on topic. One of the best things that somebody's actually ever you know, as a new mom, you might get hit by sleep when the baby sleeps and let's be real that really actually It doesn't work very well, because our mind is going well, I have to do the laundry, I have to do X, Y and Z. And so when the baby's sleeping, it feels like you're free chance to get that stuff done. And so I, I, for me, I thought that advice was useless. I mean, it's good, but it's useless. Let's be real. So I use this now. And again, my kids are six, four and two and a half. The best advice I ever heard was when your kids are crabby. Put them in the water or put them outside.

Lydia Eldridge 25:28
Yes. 100%

Natalie Gross 25:31
I've heard that too.

Tricia Murphy 25:34
So I actually just this week went back to work. And first time in two and a half years. While I was at a stay at home mom, that's a different type of work. Right? So I'm working outside the home now I'm back from teaching. But I was very well known. My husband works from home, he would come downstairs and he'd be like, Trisha, why are the kids taking a bath and I'm like, because they're crabby. So or like, it could be you know, we have a community pool. So we go into the pool all the time, like the people there, they know us very, very well. Or, hey, kiddos, we have a lake firehouse, let's go feed the fish, let's go take a walk and bring some bread when they need that change your pace, or honestly, if it's raining outside, if there's not any lightning, go play in the puddles like take them outside or put them in the water. That was to me, I've always kept that in my head. It completely not only changes their mood, but it does help me and I'm not so oh my word. I felt like all I'm doing is, you know, trying to pacify crappiness. I'm like, we're just changing our pace. And that's what we're doing. So that's something that works for me. I love going on walks with my babies. I love letting them do a water table. I love just something going to the park, something small can make a huge difference.

Natalie Gross 26:50
Yeah, I love that. That's always my advice that baby showers these days. So it's great.

Jamie Fleury 26:57
This is Jamie again. And I would just like to say, you know, when you've got those mom brain episodes that sneak up on you, it seems like you only have one of two reactions you either laugh at about it or you cry. And even if it might make people think you're crazy or something, it's always better to laugh than it is to cry.

Natalie Gross 27:18
Yeah, so true.

Lydia Eldridge 27:20
I did have a tip real quick, something that my husband and I have found have really helped us, you know, because even my husband, you know, since our sixth was born, even he has been struggling with forgetfulness. So we decided to, we have like one of those big chalkboard calendar things. And we decided that we would, you know, my husband is a police officer. So we were right on that calendar, the days that he's on shift. And then I also in addition to being a stay at home, mom, I own my own bakery business from home. And so I put on that calendar, the days that I am baking, I am you know, doing business stuff, so that my husband knows because I do most of it at night. And so he knows like what nights I'm working. And we also put on there. You know, we have kids in jujitsu. So we put on there when they have jujitsu we put on there. And and then we do this every month. And you can just see the month at a glance. And then my husband is not like surprised when I'm like hey, you know, I have to work on my big bakery business tonight. And then he's like what? You know, it's it's on the board. And I'm not surprised when he has to work or when he has a training because he knows to write any of his trainings on that board. It reminds me because I'm always forgetting. When the kids have jujitsu, I can put I can put 10 alarms on my phone and still forget, you know, to take them to jujitsu, you know, and so my daughter is gonna be starting gymnastics, and it's just a month at a glance. And then it's a constant reminder that's right there in front of you. It honestly has saved our sanity so much.

Natalie Gross 29:06
Yeah, that's a great tip. Lydia, thank you so much for sharing. All right, Dr. Barha, do you want to wrap us up here with any words of encouragement or tips?

Cindy Barha 29:14
So for mom brain, I think I've the same words I have for new moms about basically anything to do with motherhood. This too shall pass. Yes. So just like every sleep regression ends, every tooth eventually erupts. Every tantrum does you know and just like all those that forgetfulness and the fog of mom brain also passes and it's placed is your new you know, sort of fine tuned brain that's perfectly created to respond to and take care of that new baby. This too shall pass.

Natalie Gross 29:46
Yeah, that is such a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much. Thank you so much to you, Dr. Barha And to you moms, Tricia Jamie and Lydia, who joined us for this episode on mom brain today. Listeners, be sure to check out We have all of our podcasts episodes, plus videos and more.

Natalie Gross 30:14
That wraps up our show for today. We appreciate you listening to Newbies. Don't forget to check out our sister shows Preggie Pals for expecting parents, Parents Savers for moms and dads with toddlers, The Boob Group for moms who give breast milk to their babies, and Twin Talks for parents of multiples. Thanks for listening to Newbies, your go-to source for new moms and new babies.

Disclaimer 30:38
This has been a New Mommy Media production. Information and material contained in this episode are presented for educational purposes only. Statements and opinions expressed in this episode are not necessarily those of New Mommy Media and should not be considered facts. While such information and materials are believed to be accurate. It is not intended to replace or substitute for professional medical advice or care and should not be used for diagnosing or treating healthcare problem or disease or prescribing any medication. If you have questions or concerns regarding your physical or mental health, or the health of your baby, please seek assistance from a qualified health care provider.

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