What’s Happening When I Get “Mom Brain?”

It’s difficult to articulate what it feels like to be a new mom. Partly, because the new momma brain feels sleep deprivation symptoms and effects. Articulating anything when tired sometimes feels like wading through verbal slush.

For me, the best way I can describe “mom brain”  is difficulty of transitioning focus. With a newborn, you become a monitoring machine. Every ounce of you senses the presence of your baby. Even when they are sleeping, a part of you is hyper-aware of their existence.

You no longer are just you.

You are you + 1.

All the time.

You are suddenly tasked with one of the greatest learning experiences of your life. And to me, it felt pretty strange to do anything else but that, especially those first 2 months. Multitasking suddenly becomes impossible.

There were times friends would offer to watch my son so I could get some sleep. We tried. But as soon as he started to whimper—something deep within my momma brain would alert me. I’d wake up anyway. It was like I was an instrument being tuned to a different key.

What are the Effects of Lack of Sleep? 

Nearly 20% of the general adult population doesn’t get enough sleep. Sleep-related vehicle crashes have fatality rates and injury severity levels similar to alcohol-related crashes.  As a new mom, it's important to remember that sleepy driving is JUST as dangerous as drunk driving. If possible, let someone else in the family drive those first few months of motherhood. Sleep deprivation is strong. It likely alters everything from your reflexes to your decision making.

Here’s are Some Common Sleep Deprivation Effects:

  1. Involuntary microsleeps occur.
  2. Attention-intensive performance is unstable.  There are increased errors of omission (lapses) and commission (wrong responses).
  3. Cognitive slowing occurs in subject-paced tasks. Whereas time pressure increases cognitive errors.
  4. Psychomotor response time slows.
  5. Both short-term and working memory performances decline. Reduced learning (acquisition) of cognitive tasks occurs.
  6. Performance requiring divergent thinking deteriorates.
  7. Increased reliance on stimulant beverages to stay awake.
  8. Tasks may begin well, but performance deteriorates as task duration increases.
  9. (I notice this one in myself a LOT. I was literally just making sandpaper letters for my son to play with. My A-J letters looked great. K-Z, not so much).
  10. Growing neglect of activities judged to be nonessential (loss of situational awareness) occurs. (so thaaaat’s why that basket of laundry has been sitting there all week)
  11. Staying awake longer than 16 hours at a time creates deficits in decision-making tasks.
  12. There’s also a term called “sleep fragmentation”. This is when your sleep cycles are interrupted. This happens SO MUCH with a baby. It has the same effects as sleep deprivation. And thus, "mom brain" is born.

So when you DO have time to focus, it feels almost foreign. Potential opportunity to complete a task from start to finish? Say whaaaat?

Now my son is 20 months. Postpartum anxiety has lessened. But it can still be so challenging to re-find myself in parts of the day. When he is napping or playing by himself, I still can’t focus on anything but him.  Multitasking is still elusive. I’ve become so used to that external focus, and only on one thing—my baby. I’ve become so accustomed to turning “on” conscious observation. Even if I have a checklist of things do to when I have time, I feel almost immobilized when I try to start anything.

When your little one is awake,  attempt to keep an eye on them AND try to exercise, for example. But it rarely works. Thus, conditioning you even more to be a single-tasker. So, when you have the opportunity to focus on something like cooking, for example, it’s difficult. It’s like my brain has learned split-attention. It cannot single-task on anything besides being a mom anymore.

As a stereotypical type-A American, I’ve had to learn how to be OK with not starting what I finish. Even with small tasks. Acceptance of inevitable interruptions is a bit part of motherhood. I remember going to a group fitness class for new moms when my son was 4 months old. One of the icebreaker questions was, “Would you rather take a shower or eat a meal without being interrupted?”  I remember thinking wow! That’s such an appropriate question. I'd never thought about that until raising a newborn!

6 Ways I’ve Learned to Multitask... As a Woman and as a  Mother:

  1. Lean into intergenerational wisdom. I’ve been humbled with how friend's teenage children have been observant. They're so supportive of my parenting technique. It’s helpful to know that how I interact with my son speaks to a generation a decade removed. Also, women in their 70s have been a huge blessing. They help me remember not to obsess over little decisions. For example, when to give my son ice cream for the first time.
  2. Factor in some time to do “administrative things”. When I first went back to work, I would see patients, zoom home, and tell myself I’d do the documentation later. Then, I’d continue to stress about not having the documentation done. Which also kept me from being fully present with my son. So, now I just factor-in an extra 10 minutes. When I get home I'm much more peaceful.
  3. Exercise with friends. Even if it’s just a walk while you are strolling your baby. This way, you are staying physically and socially healthy. This is extremely important to model for your baby. Australia has been doing some great studies on childhood obesity in the last decade. In one study, they looked at how parental exercise affects children’s cardiovascular health. Children who have parents that exercise are more likely to participate in extracurricular sports. They'll grow up to be healthier adults.
  4. Cook in bulk. Usually, on the weekends I’ll meal prep a casserole, a soup, a smoothie, a big salad, and some salmon. That way, we have some healthy go-to options for when that 4-5 o’clock cranky hour comes around. Sometimes, I’ll even do Soup Swaps with friends. Ee each make a GIANT batch of soup, bag it up for people and then we all swap. That way, you’ve only invested in the ingredients and time for 1 soup. But everyone who participates ends up with a variety!
  5. Ask for help. It’s hard. And it still doesn’t come naturally. But I’ve learned that it can be painful for other people to watch you struggle. People often want to help you but they don’t know what to do. So asking makes them feel thankful and included.
  6. Childwatch co-ops. Pick a day and time that you watch your friend’s kids while they get something done, and then switch next week! This is a really affordable way to have childcare, socialization for your kiddo, and get some things done!
  7. No phone zones. I love setting this boundary. I only take my phones into 2 rooms of the house. Neither of these is the bedroom, living room, or kitchen. This gives me fewer opportunities to be tempted to look at it and squander time. I’ve also heard of people only looking at their phones at certain times of the day. Instead of 1-minute scrolling, you could be doing a 1-minute plank!
  8. Set a schedule for yourself. Even a pee schedule! Train your body to work on your time. 

It’s all real, messy, and amazing. There’s no absolute right or wrong way to be or think or parent. We just have to give ourselves grace.

We learn the art of coming back to something later. Including thoughts and conversations!  We love and cherish our children. But we also understand mom brain cloudiness completely.

Shoot me an email or join the Train4Birth community for more support or education on this subject. 

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