Is 'mom brain' real? How your brain changes after having kids

There's a growing body of scientific research exploring the biological and psychological shifts a woman experiences in pregnancy and new motherhood.
Many new moms say they experience forgetfulness after having kids. Dr. Alexandra Sacks explains some of the psychological and biological changes new moms go through.
Many new moms say they experience forgetfulness after having kids. Dr. Alexandra Sacks explains some of the psychological and biological changes new moms go through. TODAY Illustration
/ Source: TODAY

Lisa Kerr, a mom of triplets in Bakersfield, California, was waiting for her takeout order at a drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant recently when she noticed the man in the window looking at her strangely.

"Do you need anything else?" he asked, not for the first time, as a manager hovered behind him and Kerr’s kids cried from the backseat.

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That's when Kerr finally realized: she had her order right next to her. He’d already given it to her.

"I looked at them and said, 'I'm so sorry, my kids have been crying for 10 minutes.' I was just hoping that someone in there was a mom and they could understand what I'm feeling," she told TMRW.

Kerr, a children's book author, shared the anecdote on Twitter, writing, "Mom brain is real."

She's not the only one to experience forgetfulness after having kids. Many moms have shared similar stories on social media — like the one who put the Pringles away in the fridge, and another who left the house ... without a shirt. Or the one who spent 10 minutes searching the house for her wedding ring to find that it had been on her finger all along.

Certainly some of that confusion can be chalked up to lifestyle changes many new parents — both moms and dads — face: the sleep deprivation and stress, for example.

“If you’re up all night, you’re just not cognitively going to be the same as if you’d had a full night’s sleep — it’s easy to feel like you’re not functioning as sharply as you should be,” said Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychologist and co-author of the book, “What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood.”

She added that new parents experience a huge identity shift.

“You’re going from being an independent person to a person who is responsible for someone else’s survival,” she said. “That changes your identity. That changes how you spend your time. It changes how you sleep, when you sleep.”

There is also a growing body of scientific research into the biological shifts that occur in a woman during pregnancy and new motherhood.

In 2016, European researchers found that first-time mothers had decreased gray matter in the cerebral cortexes of their brains, and that those changes last for at least two years. In fact, the changes were so clear and consistent that researchers could tell if a woman had recently had a child simply by looking at her brain scans, according to the study.

What’s less clear is what those changes actually mean, although the study authors noted that the changes “appeared to be linked with the attachment a mother showed toward her baby.”

A study from 2010 showed that women’s “verbal recall memory” diminishes during pregnancy — so, for example, forgetting the name of a character on a favorite TV show — although recognition and working memory were not affected.

Yet other studies have shown that pregnant women may be better at recognizing faces.

Sacks stressed that none of this research means that pregnancy makes women less intelligent. She also uses the term “mom brain” with caution, pointing out that women shouldn’t assume their brains will turn to mush once they have kids. In fact, many researchers believe that whatever changes occur in a woman’s brain after she has children could actually help make her a better mother.

While the concept of “mom brain” has become a joke in popular culture, it’s important for new mothers to take their postpartum feelings seriously. As Kerr knows, it can be a difficult journey at times.

“I went my entire life wanting to be a mother,” she said. “Life could not be more perfect, but it is stressful to have triplets. The first two years of their lives were a total blur. It was very difficult to remember things like my own doctor’s appointments or my own meetings. I just feel like I’ve completely flaked on things.”

Sacks said women shouldn’t be shy about asking for help if what’s happening feels less like a joke and more like a serious problem.

“Trust yourself, trust your experience,” she said. “If you feel like you need help, don’t hesitate to call your provider, especially in the postpartum period. We’re really seeing that we need to spend more time investing in the health of a mother, not just the baby.”

“We have a lot to do in our culture to better support moms,” Sacks added. “There are other cultural practices where women have longer mandated paid maternity leave, where childcare is much more affordable and integrated, where communities help support moms in their healing and recovery after delivering a baby. It may be that our culture and the lack of support for moms also leads to particular feelings of depletion that moms are describing.”