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‘Mommy brain’ doesn't hold up long term, study finds

Researchers say there’s no evidence that mothers have compromised attentional capabilities

Photo (c) grinvalds - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Purdue University explored how “mommy brain,” or women’s tendency to be forgetful after having children, can affect them long-term. 

They learned that mothers shouldn’t worry about being forgetful or distracted, as these symptoms are often associated with a drastic change of hormones and drastically different sleeping patterns postpartum. Though stressful situations like the COVID-19 pandemic can make it harder for moms to stay on top of their game, “mommy brain” isn’t likely to be an issue long term. 

“For this particular study, we recruited moms who were past that first year postpartum because we wanted to see the long-term effects of maternity,” said researcher Valerie Tucker Miller. “Overall, moms did not have significantly different attention than non-mothers, so we did not find evidence to support ‘mommy brain’ as our culture understands it. It’s possible, if anything, that maternity is related to improved, rather than diminished, attentiveness.” 

Moms stay sharp

The researchers had mothers and non-mothers participate in the study, all of whom underwent various tests that assessed their memory and overall attention spans. 

Miller and her team utilized a newer iteration of the Attention Network Test, which assessed the participants’ reaction skills in three key areas: noticing something new, deciphering conflicts, and gearing up for incoming information. Participants also answered questionnaires that allowed them to assess their own ability to stay attentive, as well as report on how much sleep they’re getting and how tired they feel. 

The researchers learned that mothers outperformed nonmothers on the attentiveness test. While the ability to recognize something new and prepare for new information was about the same in both groups, the mothers were better able to stay focused. 

“Moms were not as distracted by those outside, incongruent items,” said Miller. “It makes perfect sense that moms who have brought children into this world have more stimuli that need to be processed to keep themselves and other humans alive, and then to continue with all the other tasks that were required before the children.” 

The study also revealed that all of the women involved in the study were good judges of their own abilities. Their self-reported assessments of their attentiveness aligned with how they performed on the attention test. 

Overall, the researchers believe that consumers should focus less on “mommy brain” and more on outside influences, as daily stressors could have a great impact on mothers’ attentiveness and ability to be present and focused. 

“This means that women have accurate awareness of their cognitive state, and that their concerns regarding their perceived attentional functioning should be taken seriously,” Miller said. “We also believe that ‘mommy-brain’ may be a culture-bound phenomenon, and that mothers will feel the most distracted and forgetful when they feel stressed, overextended, and unsupported. Unfortunately, many U.S. moms feel this way, especially now in the midst of economic and political instability and pandemic.” 

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