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Pregnancy does not diminish brain power

Wednesday February 3rd, 2010

By Jane Collingwood
So-called "baby brain" - where a woman allegedly loses brain power during pregnancy - does not exist, researchers said today.

It has been widely believed that pregnancy and motherhood can cause women to become forgetful and absentminded. Professor Helen Christensen and colleagues at the Australian National University tested the theory - and found it false.

The findings were welcomed by British midwives - who said the main problem that afflicted pregnant women's ability to think was tiredness.

The researchers recruited 1,241 women aged 20 to 24 years, and tested their cognitive speed, working memory, and immediate and delayed recall. The women were re-tested after four years and again after eight years. At follow-ups, 76 women were pregnant. A further 188 became pregnant between testing sessions.

No significant differences were seen in their cognitive abilities. The experts believe that neither pregnancy nor motherhood have a detrimental effect on women's cognitive capacity.

Professor Christensen said: "Part of the problem is that pregnancy manuals tell women they are likely to experience memory and concentration problems - so women and their partners are primed to attribute any memory lapse to the 'hard to miss' physical sign of pregnancy.

"Pregnant women may also shift their focus away from work issues to help them prepare for the birth of their new baby, while new mothers selectively attend to their baby. However, this shift in attentional focus is adaptive, and certainly cannot be labelled a 'cognitive deficit'."

Details of the study are published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. The team write: "Not so long ago, pregnancy was 'confinement' and motherhood meant the end of career aspirations. Our results challenge the view that mothers are anything other than the intellectual peers of their contemporaries.

"Women and their partners need to be less automatic in their willingness to attribute common memory lapses to a growing or new baby."

Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "It is about time that some research lays to rest this notion of pregnant women and the baby brain myth.

"As we all know tiredness - for men as well as women - can make us lose concentration and cause us to function less effectively. This is why midwives encourage pregnant women to take appropriate rest breaks, at home and at work.

"Many pregnant women will need this rest, and all of them deserve it."

Christensen, H., Leach, L. S. and Mackinnon, A. Cognition in pregnancy and motherhood: prospective cohort study. British Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 196, February 2010, pp. 126-32.

Tags: Australia | Brain & Neurology | Childbirth and Pregnancy | UK News | Women’s Health & Gynaecology

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