Recently, Katie Sardone, PhD, of Behavioral Health Dallas, offered tips and suggestions for helping new parents mentally adjust to the arrival of a new baby. As she was sharing, Dr. Sardone also spoke of some of the changes that occur, mentally and emotionally, during pregnancy.
While much of the preparation for baby includes preparing nurseries, picking out daycares, and attending showers, as well as understanding the physical changes that a body goes through, our mental health and the emotional changes are often overlooked.
This time we asked Dr. Sardone to answer our questions about “baby brain.” This is the colloquial phenomenon of forgetfulness, indecisiveness, and concentration difficulties that are attributed to pregnancy or a newborn. Dr. Sardone mentioned that previously, providers blamed the sleep deprivation, stress, and life changes that occur with a newborn on baby brain. However, “In a 2018 meta-analysis, researchers concluded that general cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning is significantly weaker in pregnant women, particularly during the third trimester, as compared to control (non-pregnant) women.” Dr. Sardone added that in her clinical practice, for example, pregnant women report that they feel forgetful, tired, or distracted, but do not experience a significant change at home or work. However, with women who have infants 6 months or younger that are only getting 1-3 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, they tend to report more sleep deprivation symptoms. These include fatigue, irritability, “cloudiness,” forgetfulness, distractibility, and negative mood. These symptoms often exacerbate, and can be confused with, a variety of additional conditions.
To sum up, Dr. Sardone added that the research indicates that changes are often temporary, and do not include functional impairment. However, the changes that we do see are complicated by change in sleep patterns, stress, and adjustment. The relationship between baby behavior, and maternal attachment and focus, also has an evolutionary advantage, as the mother’s brain is focusing more on childcare needs and increases awareness of potential threats.
Since these changes are normal and to be expected, it also helps to re-emphasize that if there are any changes that are out of the norm, it is time to seek help. Signs that anxiety and depression are impacting your functioning, or that the many changes that come with a new baby are increasing your stress and distress, indicate a higher need for help. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctors and mental health care team, and as always, call 911 if there is any immediate threat to yours, or your baby’s, safety.