'Baby brain' doesn't last: study shows that motherhood doesn't diminish attention

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Gone are the days of blaming "baby brain" for forgetfulness, as a recent study has found that mums are equally attentive or more attentive than women without children.

Unlike many other studies of new mums, university researchers from Indiana and Florida, examined women one year on from giving birth. 

"In most studies, attention and memory tests are given to mothers very early postpartum. There are few issues with that," researcher Valerie Tucker Miller said. 

"When you first have a child, you have a cascade of hormones and sleep deprivation that might be affecting attention and memory processes in the brain.

"For this particular study, we recruited mums who were past that first year postpartum because we wanted to see the long-term effects of maternity."

The research team wanted to take a closer look at "mummy brain" later in the parenting process, so they compared reaction times among 70 women who had never been pregnant or had children and 60 mothers, all of whom were at least one year postpartum. The results, published online in the journal Current Psychology, showed that mums performed equally as well or better than the non-mothers. 

"Overall, mums did not have significantly different attention than non-mothers, so we did not find evidence to support "mummy brain" as our culture understands it," she said.

"It's possible, if anything, that maternity is related to improved, rather than diminished, attentiveness."

The women were given a number of activities including a computer test where a cue box flashed for 100 milliseconds in one of two possible locations, indicating where a target image would appear on the screen. Next, an image of five arrows, each pointing left or right in consistent or conflicting directions, flashed on the screen for 500 milliseconds. Participants were then asked to press a button that corresponded to the direction of only the middle arrow.

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The test measured response times and provided scores for the three main networks of attention - the alerting network which helps the brain to prepare for incoming stimuli, the orienting network which directs the brain's attention to something new and the executive control network which helps resolve conflicting information.

The results found that the mothers in the study, who were on average 10 years older than the non-mothers, had similar alerting and orienting attention, and better executive control attention, compared to non-mothers.

"Mums were not as distracted by those outside, incongruent items," she said.

"It makes perfect sense that mums who have brought children into this world have more stimuli that needs 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."

Co-author Amanda Veile said regardless of motherhood status, the women tested were each asked what their perceived attention functioning was, and their responses consistently matched their actual tested attention scores.

"This means that women have accurate awareness of their cognitive state, and that their concerns regarding their perceived attentional functioning should be taken seriously," Ms Veile said.

"We also believe that 'mummy brain' may be a culture-bound phenomenon, and that mothers will feel the most distracted and forgetful when they feel stressed, overextended and unsupported. 

"We plan to do cross-cultural investigations to further examine how narratives of motherhood and social support are associated with maternal tested attention and well-being around the world."