Combating Baby Brain With Help From Dr. Michelle Braun

I had totally forgotten how bad pregnancy brain was… until I was pregnant this year with my second baby. Pregnancy brain, baby brain, whatever you want to call it, we all struggle with keeping focus as our minds are all over the place.  This is why I did some research on combating baby brain with help from Dr. Michelle Braun, a neuropsychologist who is passionate about finding ways to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s through science-backed strategies.

We recently interviewed her for helpful tips for mothers to combating baby brain, and here is what she has to share;

A lot of Mothers have to rely on a strict diet for their own health and the baby’s health. What kinds of food do you recommend for mothers to eat for healthy brains?

Brain-building foods include omega 3 fatty acids that are found in walnuts, flax seed, and low-mercury fish such as salmon, tilapia, and shrimp; antioxidants from dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, as well as blueberries, and other fruits and vegetables; and protein from chicken, turkey, nuts, and eggs. Also be sure to check with your healthcare provider to ensure that your diet is balanced, and you are taking the best prenatal vitamin.

What is an easy brain exercise for mothers to practice?

Busy mothers can rest assured that they do not need to seek out special brain exercises, and that almost any activity they do with baby can be converted into a brain-boosting exercise. The trick is to mix up the order of routine tasks in order to make them slightly more challenging, and explore new ways of doing familiar activities. For example, you might discover a new route to the store, join baby in a new creative activity such as finger painting, make up a new song for your child, or carry your child in your non-dominant arm. There are endless ways to diversify the routine tasks that we do as mothers, and make them slightly challenging and different! This makes brain health portable, interesting, and varied. Baby’s brain may also benefit from this variety!

How can pregnant and post-partum women combat “baby brain”? What are some things that they can incorporate into their daily routines to help strengthen their memory? (i.e. maybe learn a new language?)

Some studies have shown that ‘baby brain’ (increased forgetfulness during and shortly after pregnancy) may relate to sleep deprivation, depression, or pregnancy-related hormones. Other studies have not found support for ‘baby brain.’ For mothers who are experiencing a change in memory, the most important memory strategy is to ensure they are getting adequate sleep, at least 7-9 hours per night. Cardiovascular exercise is another important technique for boosting memory because it is the only technique that showers the brain with proteins that build new brain cells (and it can also often be done with baby!). Learning new information about a topic that is personally interesting is another great memory technique, and could include learning a new recipe, new information about a favorite hobby, or a new exercise. It is also great to seek out “head scratching moments” where we have to actively problem solve how to do a task, as those moments create the greatest number of new connections between brain cells.

What would you consider a high warning sign for new mothers? (ex. Losing their phones? Forgetting family members names? Forgetting a location?)

New mothers experience so many changes that can contribute to memory problems, including sleep deprivation, increased stress, hormonal changes, and sometimes post-partum depression. It would be highly unlikely that a new mother would have a memory problem that would be related to a brain-based disorder, but warning signs could include increasing forgetfulness for well-known information such as names of family members or familiar locations, but only if this forgetfulness that cannot be explained by other more obvious reasons such a lack of sleep, mood issues, or increased stress.

You talked about Olga Kotolenko on your site (“a 23-time world record holder in track and field, who did not start exercising until age of 70!”) Is she a rare example of someone who made it work at the last minute? Or can you really save your brain at any age?

Thankfully, Olga Kotelko is one of several older adults who had brain functioning similar to that of much younger individuals. “Super Agers” are individuals in their 60’s to 80’s who have memory similar to people several decades younger, including 18-35 year-olds. Although most people with excellent brain health have likely had healthy habits for many years, even people who have not exercised regularly until middle to late adulthood show clear brain-boosting benefits with exercise.

What are some exercises we can do with our kids for brain health?

Create a story or a song together, make artwork together, explore a new park or museum, and ask your child questions about how the characters in their favorite stories might handle new situations that weren’t in the story. The possibilities are endless as long as we focus on creating a new and slightly challenging approach to the variety of activities we do with our children.

What are some “healthy distractions” so that the brain isn’t constantly thinking of baby?

Healthy distractions include focusing on topics we are passionate about and interested in, whether that is reading a favorite book or doing a favorite exercise. Relaxation and meditation can also provide a sense of calm and healthy distraction.

Do hormones play a role? If so, how can pregnant women work on their brain skills?

There is mixed evidence about whether hormones play a role in forgetfulness during and shortly after pregnancy. The best strategies for brain health in pregnancy include getting plenty of sleep so that the body and brain can repair and rejuvenate itself, eating a balanced diet, exercising under the direction of your healthcare provider, and creating a sense of adventure, fun, and slight challenge in daily activities. Make sure that any focus on building brain health is in the context of having fun!

How can one combat the frustration of forgetting something simple? Are there any good meditations to do to prevent a melt down?

First, realize that most people experience “brain blips” and temporarily forget simple information, such as why we walked into a room, where we put their keys or purse, or a word that we wanted to say. Knowing that this is common can help to combat frustration. Also, know that there are several great strategies to help combat “Brain Blips” (e.g. the 3P’s strategy noted below). Sometimes taking a deep breath, reminding ourselves that Brain Blips are common, and slowly replaying the situation in question can be very helpful.

Your strategy of the 3 P’s (Pause, Piggyback, Practice) work in a lot of everyday scenarios. Are there any examples you can think of how the 3 P’s would help new mothers?

The 3 P’s can help new moms anytime they are trying to remember new information, such as the name of a new pediatrician, park, friend of their child, recipe, or location. The 3 P’s help us grow new connections between neurons that strengthen how that information is stored in the brain. Thankfully, the list of ways we can apply this information is endless ;)!

Follow Dr. Michelle Braun on Twitter @DrMichelleBraun

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