Employers need to be careful with this new baby brain study

baby brain
Girard Dorney


written on January 15, 2018

Given attitudes towards women and pregnancy in the workplace, employers should be wary of new research into ‘baby brain’.

“Baby brain” is the common term for the general cognitive fuzziness a lot of women experience when they’re pregnant. It’s in the news recently because a meta-analysis published in the Medical Journal of Australia has found strong evidence that many women experience at least some cognitive impairment during pregnancy.

Something to keep in mind about how news is consumed is that a huge number of people don’t read beyond the headlines. At least one study found that this is true for 59 per cent of the people it surveyed. So an impression can very easily be created in the community that’s quite far from the truth, and this seems especially true for stories that are reported on only once.

For instance, for their article on the research, The Sydney Morning Herald went with the headline: “Pregnancy really does make women more forgetful”. 9news online, whose sub-editors are masters of the clickable headline, went stark: “Pregnant women ‘suffer impaired brain function’”. And the Advertiser decided to ring alarm bells with “Baby brain: Pregnancy affects a woman’s memory and shrinks her brain.”

Most of the articles are more measured in their body text, but the salacious headlines could lead to a casual reader to think baby brain was a significant problem for pregnant staff.

Since evidence suggests pregnant women are already likely to experience prejudice and unfair dismissal while in the workforce, nuance for this issue is crucial. Organisations or individuals that are unscrupulous or less than careful could use it as evidence to support harmful policies – such as refusing to hire pregnant women, or seeking to usher women who become pregnant out of their workforce.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at what the study is actually saying.

Baby brain is not such a big deal

First things first, not every pregnant woman experiences baby brain. Studies rarely find certainties; they find probabilities. From the 709 pregnant women and 521 non-pregnant women the meta study assessed, they discovered a very high statistical likelihood baby brain was a real phenomenon. About four out of five pregnant women reported experiencing cognitive changes, which means about 20 per cent didn’t.

Secondly, baby brain is not crippling. In a passage that’s worth quoting in full, one of the study’s authors Sasha Davies from Deakin University writes on the Conversation:

“It’s important to note that while we found differences, the pregnant women were still broadly performing in the normal range, albeit at the lower end, particularly for memory tasks. So while some pregnant women may notice they don’t feel as “sharp” as usual, these effects are realistically not likely to have any dramatic impact on everyday life. Instead, some women will simply find it seems to take more mental effort to do tasks that were previously routine.”

In other words, while baby brain is real, the effects are different for each person and can also be overcome. In fact, it seems like it’s less harmful to performance than sleeping less than five hours a night. Speaking of, sleep troubles and the other physical realities of being pregnant could be partially causing baby brain.

Davies writes that while the ultimate cause is a mystery, it’s “likely” hormonal shifts play a role. But that other factors could also have an impact, she writes. These include mood changes, disrupted sleep patterns, stress levels, and morning sickness.

What should employers actually do?

Most organisations would not have to change their parental leave policies based on this research. According to the study, cognitive impairment is most apparent in the third trimester, which is when most mothers begin their maternity leave – and again, any drop in their performance is not significant enough to take it out of the normal range.

Also, given this fact, and that not all women are affected, assuming a particular employee will experience baby brain would be prejudicial. So too would be any assumption that a pregnant employee’s mistakes were due to her pregnancy.

It barely needs saying, but organisations should continue with (or implement) a parental leave policy that best suits their culture, retention, and productivity. The safest reaction to this study for employers, is to say, “that’s interesting” then move on.

But that wouldn’t make for a very good headline, would it?

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4 thoughts on “Employers need to be careful with this new baby brain study

  1. This is a brilliant article, thank you.

    I love the fact that this ‘truth’ is based on a study of just 709 women. I wonder what percentage of the female population across the world this represents.

  2. Adverse headlines like these may create a self-fulfilling prophesy for women who are already feeling tired, often nauseous, and facing massive changes to their lifestyle and finances. At this vulnerable time, is it any wonder cognitive functions can be less than optimal? Let’s now have a study on what supportive interventions in the workplace made an improvement to the workers’ performance, and report also on the myriad of examples where pregnant women have delivered outstanding achievements for the workplace and the community as well as delivering their babies!

  3. Another case of media grabbing part of a story and selling it as something far more dramatic than what it is.

    First, for the data to be deemed truly accurate from an epidemiological standpoint, they would need to replicate this across a variety of regions, countries, and social groups.

    Second, the fact that quite a lot of it hinges on self reporting makes the results highly questionable. I’ve heard husbands of pregnant women suggest that they have “baby brain” when they have memory lapses, just the same as I’ve heard it from non-pregnant female friends – I wonder how they’d self report?

    We know that tiredness, fatigue, illness, and many other things affect cognitive ability, and in the case of pregnant women, they often feel fatigued and/or nauseas and often aren’t sleeping well, so maybe the vagueness has more to do with those factors than that actual pregnancy? Unfortunately we can’t answer that until they do more thorough testing.

    Whatever the reality, we can’t and won’t know anything definitively until they do more extensive epidemiological studies, and ensure that the results are properly quantifiable and not based on ‘they reported experiencing’.

  4. Thank you for a very well-balanced article on the meta-analysis.

    I would just like to quickly correct one comment above. This meta-analysis was not based on self-report data. Indeed, a key focus my team and I had with this was to ensure that we analysed data from studies that only used standardised, objective measures of cognitive performance.

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