tired momma

Is Mommy Brain Real?

As my Mom would say, “You bet your sweet bippy it is!” My Mom was born in the ‘40s. And I have no idea what a bippy is. But it basically means an emphatic yes!

Mommy brain - that fog of not being able to remember simple things or speak clearly or make decisions - isn’t just in your head. Okay, it’s happening in your head, but rest assured, it is a very real, physiological thing with a very real cause:

Sleep deprivation.

Now, just because you don’t feel like you’re in a World War II interrogation with a bright light directed at your face 24-7 doesn’t mean you’re not sleep deprived. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night (I tend to need closer to the higher end of this range). And they need those hours to be uninterrupted.

Enter baby.

Interrupted sleep is a fact of life with a new baby that needs to feed every 3-4 hours. Somehow, with the help of grandparents and friends dropping off the odd meal we can manage to get through those first few months. But if your baby gets into some funny sleep habits and doesn’t start stretching his night sleep out longer, you can find yourself six months later waking up every 2 or 3 hours to feed or rock or bounce him back to sleep. Or pop that soother back in for the 27th time.

So what does interrupted sleep do to a Mom’s brain? When we sleep, our brains don’t shut off; they get very active doing some pretty important jobs that only happen during our nightly snooze.

When we don’t get “consolidated sleep” (7-9 hours straight), we miss out on some sleep phases that help us take in new information and store it in a place where we can retrieve it later (so, we end up forgetting stuff all the time).

We also miss the parts of sleep when our brains do their nightly “clean up” - getting rid of all the fluff and information we don’t need anymore, making room for new, useful information. During this deep, restorative sleep, our brains are also busy doing a literal clean up; the lymphatic system actually flushes away waste products that our brain cells produce when they’re doing normal tasks throughout the day. So that “foggy feeling” is probably an accurate description of what’s going on in there!

By the way, this could be Daddy brain too. If Dad is just as involved in those nightly wake ups and bedtime struggles to get baby to sleep, his brain is missing out on the nightly storage and clean-up action too. As one sleep-reformed Dad put it after his 2-year-old went from waking 5 times a night to sleeping 12 hours straight, “I'm not even sure I knew what a wreck I was until things started improving.”

So how do we get rid of Mommy brain? You guessed it - get enough sleep. Every night. It’s actually not enough to have a catch-up nap once a week when Grandma can take baby out with a couple of bottles for a nice, long walk. We need to be getting that restorative, cleaning-up sleep every night.

And if Mommy (or Daddy) is feeling sluggish, how is baby feeling? Our little ones need that memory-storing and brain-cleaning sleep too. There are countless research studies showing the effects of sleep on a baby or young child’s ability to learn and retain information. And not enough sleep for a young child has also been linked to an increased risk of childhood obesity, poor attention and hyperactivity (the kid version of Mommy brain?).

Why some babies start knocking off 12-hour nights at 3 months old and others still wake 4 times a night a year later is usually (if not always) a result of how they’re falling asleep. If your baby needs a “prop” - something outside of herself to help her fall asleep, like a soother, breastfeeding or Mom or Dad’s shoulder to lie on - then she’s likely going to wake up several times a night looking for that thing that got her to sleep in the first place.

So, get rid of the prop, and baby will develop his or her own, internal method for falling asleep, just like we learned when we were babies. But it’s obviously not as simple as it sounds (or you would have done it already); your baby isn’t going to be too thrilled with this major shake-up in routine (and kids love routine). So it’s important to use a proven method that supports your baby through the process, with or without help from a sleep coach to guide you through the ups and downs of what is usually just a two-week process. (Think about that - in just two weeks you could get your brain back!)

Sounds too good to be true? Don’t believe your child has it in him? Can’t quite get around to making the big move? Of course you can’t - you’ve got Mommy brain! It’s hard to make change and take in new information when you’re just not getting the sleep your brain and body needs.

My advice: be easy on yourself; value your sleep; honour your baby’s need for sleep; and, if you don’t feel like winging it or going it alone, call in some help.