Shortly after having my first baby, I came across dozens of mommy self-help articles online. Most of them focused on things like how to avoid dressing frumpy, how to eat quick-and-healthy meals, how to get back into an exercise regime, and how to keep your marriage strong. While these are all good concepts, something important was missing: how to keep your brain alert and your intelligence afloat postpartum.
Most women who have experienced pregnancy and the sleep deficit that follows birth know that their mental acuity takes a beating. It’s hard to stay up and feed the baby, let alone remember a short list of to-dos. Pregnant and new moms call this foggy haze “mommy brain” as they struggle with a newfound memory loss and distraction. Sleep science explains it: Sleep loss correlates with how our brain performs, especially when it comes to memory and focus. A newborn wakes up every hour or two, meaning mom interrupts her sleep cycle when she rushes to attend the little one. Cortisol, a hormone that gives you energy to perform the tasks at hand, also increases, which then raises stress levels. Studies show a negative correlation between high cortisol levels in new moms and their working memory function⎯meaning higher cortisol and stress levels are associated with lower memory capability. This is especially so when the cortisol rushes are happening over and over every night for months.
Between the hormones and fragmented sleep, a new mom can feel completely exhausted. One of the most important things a mother can do for herself in the chaotic first year of her baby’s life is to nurture her brain and stimulate her intellect. Not only will she feel less mentally sluggish and forgetful, but she will also feel far more connected to the world outside her little nest and that much less isolated. Here are a few ways to do so, that need little time or money:
01. READ, READ, READ.
Reading is one of the best (and most relaxing) ways to keep your brain active. Research shows that the more we read, the more our vocabulary, cognitive abilities, and our base of general knowledge increase. Make a short list of titles you’ve been wanting to read but haven't had the chance. There will be plenty of time while you nurse or feed a newborn! Free classics are available to download at Project Gutenburg and Books Should Be Free. Several apps, such as Free Books, have hundreds of books pre-downloaded that you can scroll through and choose from. It’s fun to have a mix of great literature, entertaining reads, and articles so you don’t get bored or overwhelmed.
If you don’t love to read, or find yourself too tired, listen to audiobooks. Check out Librivox (a free public domain of audiobooks), Audible, or your local library’s recorded books section. No matter what your choice of literature, reading (or listening) will refresh your mind. Bonus: Absorbing and reflecting on new ideas will provide fresh topics of conversation.
02. STAY IN-THE-KNOW.
It’s too easy to get wrapped up in a bubble with you and your baby. Do your best to stay connected to the rest of the outside world. Read the news online, listen to it on the radio in the car, or ask your husband or a friend to update you on current events. You won’t feel like the world is quite so centered on your nest. Stay informed and you'll have input on what people are talking about at your next social gathering.
03. LEARN SOMETHING NEW.
Setting a goal and learning something new is good for your brain and your self-confidence. If you like languages and want to brush up on your skills or learn a new one altogether, check out DuoLingo, available online or as an app. It uses challenges and a game format to help you learn French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian.
If you're more hands-on, consider taking up a craft like sewing, crocheting, or knitting. You can find free or inexpensive online courses for virtually anything you're interested in on Udemy and Skillshare. Whether you learn how to use that fancy camera or to write calligraphy or to play the guitar, you're sure to find a new hobby to enjoy.
4. HANG OUT WITH ADULTS, TOO.
Perhaps most obvious, one of the best ways to keep your brain engaged is to talk with other adults on a regular basis. Schedule evenings with friends, playdates with moms, and date nights with your hubby to avoid going stir-crazy with your cute (but non-conversational) baby. It’s worth the time and effort to keep yourself mentally alert and to always continue learning. After all, there’s no better gift you can give your child than a mom who nurtures her mind as well as her body.
Photo by Lucy O Photography