Pregnesia
As one of the less unpleasant, but still worrying effects of pregnancy, short-term memory loss can leave moms in a fog. What’s behind it and how do you handle it?
Short-term memory loss during pregnancy can be a concerning element of what is meant to be a joyous journey. (iStock)
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As one of the less unpleasant but still worrying effects of pregnancy, short-term memory loss can leave moms in a fog. What’s behind it and how do you handle it?

Real life stories

“I poured orange juice into my breakfast cereal this morning,” moans 5-months-pregnant Candida Singh.

Thoko Meru, 8 months pregnant, says, “I drove all the way to the hardware shop to get batteries for my clock, but when I got there I had totally forgotten what kind of batteries I needed, so had to go all the way home again.”

Pregnesia - a common complaint during pregnancy

Forgetfulness and being more absent-minded are common complaints during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester. In fact, approximately half of all pregnant women report an increase in short-term memory loss, also jokingly referred to as pregnesia, preggie-, porridge- or baby-brain, during the latter part of pregnancy and for at least a year after the baby has been born.

Science says

Maternal forgetfulness a myth?

Some academics, such as Dr Ros Crawley, dismiss “maternal amnesia” as a myth, explaining that mood swings, as well as widely held social expectations that pregnant mothers are more absentminded, are the real culprits.

It definitely exists

Other research begs to differ. Dr Julie Henry and Peter Rendell, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, examined the memory performances of 412 pregnant women, 272 mothers and 386 non-pregnant females, concluding: “Pregnant women are significantly impaired on some, but not all, measures of memory,” says Dr Henry.

“Regular, well-practised memory tasks are unlikely to be affected, such as remembering phone numbers of friends and family members. However, the ability to perform more novel memory tasks, such as remembering new phone numbers or people’s names, or perhaps recalling 5 or 6 digits for a short period of time, may be affected.”

Why so forgetful?

While increased levels of hormones are blamed for just about every ailment a woman can experience in pregnancy – mood swings, nausea, skin conditions and constipation – this time hormones are not entirely to blame. While they do play a part in short-term memory loss, the shift in lifestyle that takes place in pregnancy is as much a contributing factor as any hormonal shifts.

A study published in the American Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics confirmed that pregnant and post-partum women performed worse on tests of working memory.

The causes of pregnesia

According to the results conducted by the American Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics, pregnesia can be caused by:

The mind's attempt to adapt

“The results suggest that the working memory of pregnant women may be affected by a higher-than-normal volume of information as their minds attempt to adapt to the anticipated life changes and increased responsibility of caring for an infant.”

Physical, emotional and mental changes

Pregnancy is an overwhelming experience in many ways and poses quite a challenge physically, mentally and emotionally, and pregnesia might well be the result.

A preoccupation with the future

Forgetfulness may also stem from becoming preoccupied with concerns about the future, with plans for the birth and life with a baby, which can crowd the mind of an otherwise clear-headed person.

Feeling more emotional

It is also very normal to feel more emotional during pregnancy – irritable, angry, moody, anxious, tearful and overwhelmed by the huge and often unexpected changes taking place in your body. These all contribute to lowered cognitive function in expectant moms.

Doing too much at once

Mixing work and pregnancy can also lead to preggie-brain as you not only need to keep up with work responsibilities, but have to cope with being a 24-hour baby-developing factory.

Lack of sleep

Another crucial factor affecting memory is sleep... or rather the lack thereof. In the latter stages of pregnancy, many women struggle to get a good night’s sleep – you are uncomfortable and unable to find a good sleeping position, have difficulty turning over due to a bigger belly and usually need to visit the bathroom more often at night, resulting in long, restless nights.

“You’re going to have more difficulty sleeping,” agrees Dr Henry. “And other studies have shown that sleep deficiency definitely disrupts cognitive performance. There’s no reason to think it won’t do so during pregnancy.”

Go to page 2 to see some memory boosting tips and memory exercises

 

Some tips to boost memory

Most women consider pregnesia to be one of the “easier”, albeit inconvenient and frustrating, symptoms of late pregnancy. Fortunately the symptoms will usually abate or disappear sometime after delivery and within the following year.

Relax

If this is your first baby, try to indulge in relaxing, calming activities, such as long baths, candlelight dinners, refreshing walks and making time to read your favourite books (non-baby-related!). If this isn’t your first child, then try to enlist some help from family and friends so you can do the same. Pamper yourself and give your mind a break.

Simplify your life

Pregnesia is also a call to simplify your life. Self-imposed stress can lead you to forget things. While this is easier said than done, try to prioritise what needs to be done immediately and what can wait until you are settled with your new baby.

For example, do you absolutely have to repaint the guest bedroom right now, or sort out all your old books just because a new baby is arriving?

Keep a diary or notebook

A practical plan is to keep a detailed diary and carry a notebook with you to make lists of each important item that you want to (and have to) remember, as soon as you think of them. Always keep items you use often, such as keys, in one place.

Memory exercises that can successfully improve memory:

Actively recall information while learning

You meet an important business connection called Sarah Green, whose name you must remember. Repeat her name out loud as you are shaking hands. “Pleased to meet you, Ms Green.” After she leaves, repeat the name several times to yourself, either aloud or just in your head.

Go over new information from time to time

Repeat the events of the day before going to bed, for example, think about Ms Green’s name, and say it to yourself several times. Think of this as reviewing notes before a test.

Use Mnemonics or mental images to remember

Use mental images and associations to trigger information. You might note that Ms Green has green eyes and was wearing a green shirt at the time you met. In this case, you might add “Ms Green Eyes” to your repetitions to help brand her name into your memory. Also use acronyms to remember more details.

Don’t forget...

Take heart from the fact that pregnesia won’t last forever. Most mothers claim that their previously organised, clear-headed selves returned within a year of giving birth, usually coinciding with their baby’s improved sleep patterns.

A study on rats showed that mother rats were able to learn quicker and were better at problem-solving than non-parent rats, so there are certainly other long-term advantages to pregnesia.

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