When Sheri Helman was pregnant with her second child, she had what she calls her worst mommy brain episode. “I had to fly to Montreal for a work-related event. I got to the airport, parked, popped my trunk to get my bag out and realized I had forgotten my suitcase on my driveway,” she says. Stories like Sheri’s are commonly divulged in mom groups as examples of “mommy brain”– the idea that motherhood saps our sanity and smarts.
But Katherine Ellison, veteran foreign correspondent and author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter says a new mother’s brain is not shrinking, but growing new neurons and becoming smarter in a different way.
“There’s a very strong perception that we cannot be clear thinkers once we have children; that our minds are this melting mix of pacifiers and baby blankets and that we can’t think about serious things,” she says. But becoming a mother forces you to think about the most serious things and learn things at a greater speed than ever before in your life. It was after reading an article by two researchers who discovered mother rats experienced improvements in learning and memory capacity that Katherine realized this whole notion of mommy brain was simply a myth.
“All of the senses are elevated after the birth of a baby,” she says. Peripheral vision increases, sense of smell becomes more acute and hearing improves to allow moms to differentiate baby’s cries. But Katherine says emotional intelligence is the area with the biggest benefit. “You develop the skills of responding to another person and understanding where the person is coming from,” she says. Virginia neuroscientists found mother rats excelled at time management and efficiency; good news for working mothers. Fathers, too, can experience these brain-enhancing benefits to the extent to which they’re involved with their children.
Although sleep deprivation, stress and watching hours upon hours of Dora the Explorer can drain any parent’s mental energy, Katherine says rather than eroding intelligence, motherhood puts us through challenging experiences that stimulate the brain to create new cells and allow neurons to make new connections, giving a new positive meaning to the term “mommy brain”.
Stress can inhibit the cognitive benefits of “mommy brain”. “This is not the time to take on a lot of new responsibilities,” says Katherine. Participating in a mommy and baby yoga class to help calm the mind may be helpful. Breastfeeding can also help reduce stress as it releases a hormone called oxytocin, which promotes feelings of calmness.
Although sleep deprivation may seem to come with the territory, lack of sleep has been tied to reduced brain function. To ensure you’re getting enough z’s, make a sleep plan with your partner. If breastfeeding, pump milk ahead of time so your partner can bottle-feed baby when it’s your turn to sleep through the night.
Toronto mom and entrepreneur Alison Burke says while she worried the birth of her child would render her ineffective in running her business, she realized the more she kept her brain stimulated, the less she had embarrassing moments of forgetfulness. Joining a book club, doing online brain games or keeping up with your social life all help keep your brain fit.
Exercise can increase brain power by stimulating blood flow to the brain and is a known mood enhancer, crucial for fighting off post-baby blues. Include your baby in your exercise habits by joining a stroller fit group or mom and tot yoga. Or, incorporate yourself into your child’s routine and work out at the playground.
Originally published in Me & Mom, 2014.