March 21, 2003 -- Some women swear they have memory lapses during pregnancy. But new research challenges that notion -- finding that it's just not true. They're likely just feeling a bit overwhelmed by new responsibilities, says one expert.
Magazine articles, childcare books, midwives -- even pregnant women themselves have contributed to the belief that women's memories weaken after they learn they are pregnant.
While some studies have suggested there may be mild memory loss during pregnancy, other studies have been contradictory, writes lead author Ros Crawley, PhD, a psychologist with the University of Sunderland.
Crawley focused her studies on women in the second and third trimesters, and in the first year after their child is born. Her report appears in the latest issue of Psychology and Psychotherapy.
In her first study, Crawley tested 15 pregnant women and 14 non-pregnant women for their ability to remember words (known as verbal memory). She also tested all the women on their focus attention -- that is, their ability to concentrate on one thing while something else is going on, like reading while the TV is on. And she tested their ability to do two things at once -- called divided attention -- like listening to the radio while cooking.
In the four times Crawley tested the women, they showed no significant differences in their functioning.
However, when women asked to rate their own mental acuity, there was one exception. The pregnant women rated their abilities worse than six months earlier when they were not pregnant.
In her second study, Crawley included 25 pregnant women and 10 non-pregnant women. Each was asked to record a daily rating on general memory, memory for anything read that day, focused attention, and divided attention. Pregnant women then provided daily ratings for seven consecutive days during pregnancy and after the child was born -- with non-pregnant women noting their ratings at similar intervals.
At trimester three, more pregnant women reported mild impairments in their focused and divided attention abilities and in their ability to remember what they had read, compared to non-pregnant women. However, there was no difference in trimester two or postpartum.
Together, the studies show that pregnant women indeed perceive themselves as having memory and attention problems, says Crawley. However, there was no evidence of any actual impairment in the tests they were given.
The "impairments" represent a stereotype that has been attributed to women at other points of her life -- including her menstrual cycle and menopause. People are not very good at estimating their own mental acuity. In fact, women are likely being influenced by negative stereotypes, she adds.
Even when pregnant women rated their own abilities, they were only slightly lower than those of non-pregnant women, she says.
While changes in estrogen levels may affect memory abilities, it is unlikely that hormones are responsible, Crawley adds. There may be an underlying mild attention deficit disorder that is to blame. Or, it could be that there are no impairments during pregnancy -- not even mild ones -- and the women's low self-ratings may reflect depression or the effects of stereotypes.
John Thorp, MD, an ob-gyn at the University of North Carolina, spoke with WebMD about this phenomenon. "Most definitely, women tell me they begin having some memory problems, forget things. They tell me, 'I don't think as clearly as I once did.' I remember my wife telling me, 'I'm having to think how to shift gears when I drive the car.' And she'd been driving a clutch for years."
In fact, women seem to have even more "thinking problems" afterwards, he says.
"What's most intriguing about this study, is the perception of decline," Thorp says. "I think patients will find it reassuring -- that even though you feel this way, it's not the onset of Alzheimer's. I think what women experience is competition for their attention. Suddenly, they've got more going on. They're responsible for this other entity. But I don't think it's anything to worry about. This study showed that women are functioning just fine, even though they don't think they are."