Busting the Urban Myth of Baby Brain

Lisa Annese
Topics Gender

I was disturbed to read in the press last week the story about a former Queensland state manager of private wealth management organisation, who alleges that she had been repeatedly discriminated against on the grounds of her pregnancy.  Alarm bells went off when I read that court documents revealed that she was told by her supervisor that: “In his experience, a woman’s IQ halves when she falls pregnant”.

The alleged statement appalled me but it also sounded very plausible given the frequency with which we hear mention of the popularly accepted phenomena that women become scatterbrained during  pregnancy.  What is unusual about the comment made by the executive is the strident nature of it.  However, more subdued versions of this comment are routinely expressed about pregnant women. The notion of ‘baby brain’ or ‘placenta dementia’, the supposed cognitive impairment that progressively impacts women during pregnancy appears to be widely accepted.  Indeed, I have even heard women lament it.  But is there any truth to it?

Well, not much, according to the science! A 2010 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry [1] found there is zero evidence to support the assertion.  Researchers measured the baseline cognitive function of 1,241 women who were randomly selected from the electoral role.  At the first point of measurement, none of these women were pregnant.  They were tested for the important cognitive functions including working speed, cognitive memory, immediate recall and delayed recall.  Follow up tests were conducted of these women at two separate future intervals where over 25% of them became pregnant and gave birth.  No evidence of cognitive changes was found. 

And these results have been replicated in other more recent studies. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology [2], no differences were found in the objective neuropsychological results of pregnant women as their pregnancy progressed. 

Interestingly, there is some research that suggests that women’s brain functions actually improve during pregnancy. One study published in the Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing [3] showed that cognitive performance in pregnant women improved, while researchers at the University of London have recently found that pregnant women show increased activity in the area of the brain related to emotional skills, as they neurologically prepare to bond with their babies.

What is interesting about the 2014 study noted above is that while it could produce no scientific evidence to denote the existence of cognitive decline, it did reveal that pregnant women themselves subjectively stated that they had noticed some impairment.  

Indeed, if we note the recent Australian Human Rights Commission report on pregnancy discrimination in the workplace [4] where almost 50% cent of mothers indicate that they have experienced discrimination in the workplace at some point during pregnancy, parental leave or when they returned to work, it can be deduced that some employers and managers are buying into the argument as well.

Why does the theory persist?

So why do some women report experiencing a phenomena that science cannot produce significant and irrefutable evidence to support?

Is it because cognitive decline in pregnancy is often presented as a fact?  Is it because many pregnancy books and manuals often tell women they are likely to experience memory and concentration problems?  Is it the ‘placebo’ effect? Or do we more readily attribute a memory or concentration lapse to pregnancy when otherwise we may not comment or even notice it at all?

Do we expect to get ‘baby brain’ while we’re expecting?  Is that because we’ve been told to expect it? Or are these views a throwback to an earlier time when it was thought pregnant women and work don’t mix?

Whatever the reason, it is vital to the full participation of women in the labour market that the theory be challenged. 

Given Australia’s ageing workforce, tight labour market and relatively low rates of workforce participation for women of child-bearing age, retaining women in the workforce has never been more important. 

As The Grattan Institute has noted [5], increasing the labour market participation of women, particularly mothers, in Australia offers one of the two greatest opportunities to increase our nation’s productivity. Pregnancy, birth and childcare have an enormous impact on women’s workforce participation and the vast majority of women who do not participate in paid work, or who work part-time, have children. The Institute emphasises that female workforce participation can only change significantly if more mothers have jobs.

According to the ABS [6], nearly three-quarters of Australian women now continue in the job they hold during pregnancy, and of those who permanently leave the job they had during pregnancy, less than half (49%) left to care for their child. Women report to the ABS that they start or return to work after having children partly to ensure they keep their job or their employer has requested they return, but also increasingly for financial reasons and to maintain self-esteem.

Leading employers have long recognised the productivity and business benefits of supporting pregnant employees and parents, through policies including paid parental leave and flexible working including:

  • Attracting and retaining talented employees;
  • Protecting the significant investment in training and developing employees;
  • Improving staff retention and reducing turnover; and
  • Supporting family friendly practices in workplaces as crucial to retaining skilled workers.

In addition to paid parental leave, many leading employers are offering support for pregnant employees and parents via workplace flexibility, financial incentives to return to paid work, initiatives such as purchased leave schemes which allow parents to provide care in school holidays, grandparenting leave, company-provided and supported childcare, teleworking options and more. These initiatives are making an enormous difference to the ability of many mothers to remain in paid work. Likewise, leading practice initiatives such as leave for parents dealing with fertility treatment and for parents in the period leading up to adoption reflect the changing reality of modern workplaces and the issues facing many families. 

But it seems that community attitudes about pregnant women aren’t keeping pace. With many people seemingly all too ready to accept old fashioned tales about baby brains and working women being at the mercy of their hormones, it’s clear that there’s more work to do.  

Lisa Annese is DCA's Chief Executive Officer

Twitter @LisaAnnese@DivCouncilAus


[1] British Journal of Psychiatry, 2010; 196:126-132.

[2] Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 2014

[3] Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing, 1989 Mar-May; 6(3):40-7

[4] Australian Human Rights Commission, National Review on Discrimination Related to Pregnancy, Parental Leave and Return to Work 2014

[5] Daley, J., McGannon, C. & Ginnivan, L. (2012) Game-Changers: Economic Reform Priorities for Australia. Grattan Institute, Melbourne.

[6] ABS. (2102). Pregnancy and Employment Transitions, Australia, Nov 2011. Cat. No. 4913.0. ABS, Canberra.

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