'Mommy Brain' May Not Be What You Think, Study Shows

Working Mom

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Key Takeaways

  • Attentiveness is equal, and in some cases better, in moms when compared to non-moms
  • Being a mom does not diminish cognitive function long term

If you are a mom, then chances are that you’ve claimed “mommy brain” for a sense of vagueness, a forgotten appointment, or losing your train of thought mid-conversation.

Although it is widely accepted that hormones play a significant role in a mother's cognition in the first year after having a baby, new research is emerging to suggest that being a mom doesn’t objectively impact your cognition on a long-term basis.

Study Findings

Researcher Valerie Miller, from Purdue University, and colleagues looked at a small group of mothers vs. non-mothers to assess how motherhood impacts attention specifically.

Miller explains why the study was important: “In reading through the literature, it was very dismal... the changes that mothers reported or that were found in these behavioral tasks just were negative, generally negative.

"And it just didn't resonate with me, because I thought, 'We've evolved so long and so well to keep offspring alive. Helpless offspring'. So, to me, it would make sense that attention might be better if you're responsible for the life of another person.”

Miller and her colleagues looked at three areas of attention: alerting (vigilance), orienting (moving between tasks), and executive control (conflict resolution). It is important to note that the biological mothers in this test were, on average, 3.5 years post-birth. They did not have children under the age of 12 months, and they were not pregnant.

Alerting is described as a state of vigilance or being able to perceive what is needed in a situation. Results showed that mothers and non-mothers are equally efficient at this.

Orienting is the ability to move from one task to another. Results also showed that moms and non-moms scored equally in this aspect. The only difference found in this area is that more moms self-reported feeling inattentive than non-moms. Both moms and non-moms were slower in orienting if they self-reported feelings of inattentiveness, but the average scores of the groups were similar.

When testing executive control, a mothers' response rate, although slightly slower, was more accurate than that of non-mothers. Miller explains that executive control “is really just the brain's ability to resolve conflict. So if I see something pointing to the right and something pointing to the left and I've been told to choose the one that's pointing to the right, it's…just my ability to ignore the misinformation and choose the right thing and resolve that conflict.”

Why mothers are more accurate in this respect has not yet been determined. Since the mothers in the study were on average 10 years older than non-mothers, age could be a factor. The study authors also suggested that the speed-accuracy trade-off may be beneficial when parenting, as children sometimes resolve their own conflicts given time.

Valerie Miller, PhD Candidate and Study Author

Maternity does not equal diminished cognitive functioning, we don't see that.

— Valerie Miller, PhD Candidate and Study Author

Other scientific studies have used functional MRI to show that women actually increase the amount of grey matter in their brains after having a baby. Although these studies speculate on what these changes may mean based on the areas of the brain affected, they do not specifically address how these changes affect a mother’s day-to-day cognitive function.

From both her own research and other scientific studies, Miller says, “We've learned a lot, but I also think this relationship between what behavioral tests and MRI studies are saying is not yet being able to be mapped onto the experiences of the moms.”

Is 'Mommy Brain' Real?

Just because the data suggest that objectively moms and non-moms are equal in their cognitive abilities long term, we are all human, and the same objective data can present differently for different people when adapted to real life.

Miller explains that “just because there's faster executive control of attention, that might not present to the mom as better.” She suggests that fast reaction times can present in some people as better cognition and less distractedness, but in others, it may present as anxiety or stress.

Similarly, a slower reaction may present as inattentive and vague for one person, but perhaps for another, it would represent the careful calculation of a situation thus requiring more thought, attention, and time.

Miller states, “I don't want this conclusion or these results to invalidate how mothers say they've been feeling. Because if it's real to you, it's real. Period. Whatever the tests show. But I also do want to demonstrate that maternity does not equal diminished cognitive functioning, we don't see that.”

Further research is currently being conducted by Miller and her colleagues to assess a mother’s perception of "mommy brain," what it looks like, and where it stems from, from a mother's perspective.

Valerie Miller, PhD Candidate and Study Author

I don't want this conclusion or these results to invalidate how mothers say they've been feeling. Because if it's real to you, it's real. Period. Whatever the tests show.

— Valerie Miller, PhD Candidate and Study Author

If Not 'Mommy Brain,' Then What?

It is important to understand that many other factors in life can impact cognitive function, attention, and memory. Motherhood alone does not determine this.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation negatively impacts your attention, reaction times, memory, and creativity. If you have a child that is not sleeping through the night, a partner who snores loudly, or an overactive mind at night, then chances are you are not getting adequate sleep, which may impact your day-to-day function.

Chronic or high-level stress can diminish cognitive function and memory, while mild or short-term stress can improve these things. So long as your brain has time to relax and rest after a short period of stress, it can continue to function optimally. If you find you are struggling with ongoing stress, it is important to reach out for help from loved ones or from your doctor.

Perceived social isolation has been also shown to cause declines in cognitive function. Parenting can be an isolating experience for many new parents, especially if they do not have other friends with children.

Conversely, during the isolation we experienced as a result of COVID-19, many parents were overwhelmed trying to juggle all the priorities themselves, many of which they would have previously outsourced. This overload of responsibility may have lead to feelings of inadequacy, isolation, and subsequent cognitive struggle.

Miller is currently working on further research around maternal perceptions of "mommy brain." This will give greater insight into how being a mom affects our cognitive function and what it means for the day-to-day functioning of moms.

What This Means For You

Being a mom does not directly influence your cognitive function long term. However, your own experiences, situation, and perception do influence your overall experience of parenthood. If you feel like you are struggling, it is important to reach out for assistance to people or services in your local area that can help.

6 Sources
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