Dina Roth Port had been a mom for only 48 hours when she realized that she'd lost her mind -- at least temporarily. "My first evening home from the hospital, the baby nurse we'd hired asked where the kitchen trash can was and I gave her a totally blank stare: I couldn't remember!" says Roth Port, of Boca Raton, Florida, mom of Samantha, now 1.
Call it what you will -- baby brain drain, maternal absentmindedness -- the phenomenon of forgetfulness is a fact of life for moms, often setting in even before they give birth. This particular brand of memory loss can reduce the kind of person who once never forgot a face (let's call her Mommy A) into a blithering idiot. Now, when Mommy B waves Mommy A down in the frozen-food aisle, she has to introduce herself three different ways before A finally remembers who she is: "Jake's mom? From the playground last week? You know, I had an extra strawberry-watermelon Go-Gurt?" It's the gremlin who hides the car keys and allows cookies to burn to a crisp and permission slips to go unsigned.
What makes a mom become so forgetful? A variety of things. Is there any chance of returning to the way you were -- able to remember names and faces, birthdays, and when it's your turn to bring in snacks? Absolutely. Read on for the biggest memory zappers (and be sure to take notes, lest you forget).
Maura Rhodes is a mom of four (ages 14, 6, 3, and 4 months) and a senior editor at Parenting.
Sleep deprivationAllison McDowell-Enstrom, of Kenmore, Washington, nursed her son, Jackson, around the clock and blames insufficient shut-eye for the many memory lapses she suffered at the time. "Jackson had his two-month checkup, so off we went! When I walked into the office, something didn't feel right. I told the receptionist I was there to see the doctor, and she said, 'You mean dentist, don't you?' That's when I put it all together -- we'd driven to my dentist's office!"
New information is solidified in the brain while you sleep, so not getting enough can affect your ability to remember things. "If you learn something in the evening, sleep on it for eight hours, and then are tested on it, your memory of it is likely to be 20 to 30 percent better than if you'd learned it in the morning and were tested eight hours later," says Matt Walker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine compared the response times and memorization skills of people who'd slept for four, six, or eight hours per night over a period of two weeks to those who stayed awake for three days. They found that the eight-hour sleepers did fine, but the four- and six-hour ones performed just as poorly as the folks who hadn't gotten any shut-eye at all.
To get more zzz's:
* Though you may be sick of hearing it, sleep when the baby does: A 60- to 90-minute nap can work wonders on a sluggish brain, says Walker. (A shorter siesta may not revive brain cells; a longer one may interfere with your nighttime sleep.)
* If you can't squeeze in a nap, try to get to bed an hour earlier on most nights so you can get close to eight hours before the kids start to stir. Or take turns doing night duty with your husband.
* In a pinch, have caffeine. Whether it's coffee, tea, or soft drinks, it can temporarily help you be more alert and able to focus after a sleepless night. But too much caffeine can be counterproductive, leaving you so jittery you can't concentrate. For the best perking-up effect, sip such beverages in small amounts throughout the day.
StressCortisol, the same hormone that comes into play during childbirth, kicks in whenever we're stressed. With the challenges of raising kids, moms might as well be mainlining it -- which means an almost constant assault on the brain's memory centers.
That said, your brain won't be permanently affected by that crazy morning when you had a job interview and the baby pooped down her leg and your toddler spilled juice on his jacket just as you were loading them in the car for daycare. And besides, that sort of situation can't be helped. "The key isn't to try to avoid stress, but to figure out how to manage it," says Cynthia Green, Ph.D., author of Total Memory Workout and a mom of three.
* Anything that enables you to relax, whether it's a yoga class or reading a few pages of a novel, is a good thing. Don't have much time? Find a quiet place and try to "breathe into your heart" for a few minutes: Close your eyes, imagine the face of someone you love, and breathe deeply as you think of that person.
* If you can't get a second to yourself, unwind with your kids. "I'll sit down and color with my two-year-old for fifteen minutes, or we'll all take a walk," says Green. "I find being with my kids grounds me. I forget about my bad day by focusing on whatever we're doing together."
DietCertain nutrients, including zinc (found in meats and fortified cereals), vitamin B-12, and folic acid, may affect memory when in short supply. But the one that has the greatest impact on a mom's memory is iron. As many as 25 percent of all pregnant women are iron-deficient. During pregnancy, not only does the baby's growth sap your stores, but the increase in your blood volume dilutes them as well. The loss of blood during childbirth (and every month from your period, when it comes back) also takes a toll. Afterward, time constraints can keep you from eating well.
To boost your iron intake:
* Eat iron-rich foods. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iron is 27 milligrams for pregnant women and 18 milligrams for both nursing and non-nursing moms. The best way to meet those levels is to eat more lean red meat, iron-fortified cereals (one serving of Cream of Wheat supplies half the RDA for this nutrient), legumes (such as peas and beans), and nuts.
* To increase absorption, pair legumes with vitamin-C-rich foods, like peppers. And cook in cast-iron pots, which release some of their iron, especially if you're making something acidic, like tomato sauce. Save dairy foods for between-meal snacks because calcium inhibits absorption.
* Take an over-the-counter multi-vitamin; most contain the recommended daily amount of iron. Stay away from iron supplements (too much of it can be toxic for some people) unless your doctor prescribes them.
MultitaskingIt's the survival method moms rely on most, but a University of Michigan study found it may actually be linked to poor performance overall, including short-term memory loss. That means you'll have trouble remembering what snack you said you'd bring to the playgroup if you made that promise over the phone at the same time you were keeping an eye on the pasta water and opening your mail.
To do less:
* Live in the moment. If you don't focus on what's going on, there's no way you'll remember it. When you're getting some important information -- from your pediatrician, say, or your child's sitter -- turn off the TV, leave the playroom, do whatever it takes to allow you to listen.
* Cut down on the things you need to remember. The key to keeping up for Carole Bolen, of Queensbury, New York, mom of 6-year-old triplets and 9-year-old twins, is to schedule all doctor and dentist appointments on the same day. "The kids even play the same sports at the same time," she says.
The easiest memory boostersSome ways to remember the things you shouldn't forget:
Look, snap, connect
Can't keep the names and faces of the moms in your playgroup straight? Try this tactic from Gary Small, M.D., author of The Memory Prescription: When meeting someone new, focus on her, pick out a distinctive physical feature (red curls, funky glasses, husky voice), then connect that trait with something familiar in your mind. (The red hair is like your sister-in-law's, for example.)
Borrow the Game Boy
Many of the games kids play are great for shoring up big people's ability to focus: Concentration, Simon, just about any video game, says Green, who swears by a version of Ms. Pac-Man that she can play on her TV. Or check out games and puzzles online; the ones on SetGame.com and JigZone.com will give your brain a good workout.
Meditation can be especially helpful for perpetually distracted moms: It teaches you to be able to home in on the things that matter and block out everything else. To reap the benefits, say practitioners, you need to meditate most days -- but just ten minutes of staying focused on your breathing is all it takes.
Write it all down
The human brain can only hold about seven bits of information in working memory at a time (that's partly why phone numbers are seven digits), though it can obviously store a lot more than that, says Green.
Heather Salzo of Danbury, Connecticut, has had countless memory slips since her son Christopher was born a year ago; now she swears by sticky notes. "I leave myself a note at night in the kitchen, and it's there in the morning to remind me. That's been a lifesaver," she says.
In Nashville, Jess Hill, mom of three, keeps a three-ring binder with pocket folders clipped inside, one for each member of the family. "I slip all school forms, class phone lists, party invitations for that kid or parent in his or her folder," she says.
If the days, weeks, or years since you became a mother feel like one big blank, give yourself a break. So what if you can't remember the name of the last novel you read or where your husband took you on your last birthday? What you'll never forget are the things that really matter: your baby's first smile, your toddler's first halting steps, the endearing lisp your 5-year-old developed when she lost her two front teeth, and the utter joy of being a mom.