'Baby brain' phenomenon false? Study shows motherhood does not diminish attention

mum asleep with baby
Authors criticized other "unfair" studies which were performed soon or straight after childbirth. Photo credit: Getty.

The long-held perception that mothers are more forgetful and less attentive has been dismissed by a new study.

'Mummy brain' or 'baby brain' is usually blamed on increasing hormones and sleep deprivation in new mothers, but researchers from Purdue University have found that motherhood actually improved attentiveness.

Study leader Valerie Tucker Miller criticised other studies on 'baby brain', as participants were tested quite soon after they had given birth, which she says she felt was unfair.

"There are few issues with that," she explained. "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."

Instead, her study focused on mothers who were at least one year post-partum and discovered they performed equally or better compared to women who had never been pregnant or had children.

Miller used a revised version of the Attention Network Test (ANT), called the ANT-R, to compare reaction times among 60 mothers and 70 non-mothers. 

Researchers asked participants a series of questions, including "How sleepy do you feel?" and "How do you think your attentiveness is?" 

The results, published online in the journal Current Psychology, show that mothers performed equally as well or better compared with women who had never been pregnant or had children.

"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," co-author Amanda Veile said.

Mothers in the study were, on average, 10 years older than those who did not have children, but had much better executive control attention.

"It makes perfect sense that mums 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," Miller stated.

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

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

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