Pregnancy affects women’s memory for what they plan to do

Anecdotal reports of women experiencing memory problems during pregnancy have recently been supported by lab research showing that pregnant women under-perform on tests of retrospective memory, such as word learning tasks. What’s not been established clearly until now, however, is whether prospective memory is also impaired: that is, the ability to remember to do those things when one planned to – such as keeping appointments and taking medication.

Peter Rendell and Julie Henry tested twenty pregnant women and twenty non-pregnant women on a board game called “Virtual Week” and also on a real life task. The game involves participants remembering to carry out daily tasks and is designed to reveal prospective memory problems. The real life task required the women to “check in” with a portable device at the same four times each day, for a whole week.

Although the pregnant women showed no impairment on the board game, they were significantly impaired at the real life task compared with the non-pregnant women. Moreover, this impairment remained even when the women were tested again 13 months later, after they had given birth. However, a difference at this later testing session was that although they missed the same number of “check-ins”, they tended to realise later on the same day that they had done so.

Rendell and Henry told the Digest that pregnant women may be advised to adopt strategies to improve their prospective memory functioning in daily life. “Specific strategies,” they said, “include creating external physical cues or imagining vivid cues that can function as alerts, for example: leave a prominent reminder note next to the lock on your office door to help you remember to take home something from work and set a timer to remove food from the oven on time. Another specific strategy is to not delay carrying out an intended task once it has been brought to mind. Research has shown that even brief delays involving several seconds can substantially reduce the chances of the intended action being successfully carried out.”

ResearchBlogging.orgPeter Rendell, Julie Henry (2008). Prospective-memory functioning is affected during pregnancy and postpartum Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 30 (8), 913-919 DOI: 10.1080/13803390701874379

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

5 thoughts on “Pregnancy affects women’s memory for what they plan to do”

  1. Um..memory impairment post-childbirth might be related to extreme sleep deprivation? e.g. they have a baby at home. I’ve had 3 kids and suffered from massive sleep deprivation about 4 months before birth (due to physical discomfort and baby movement), and for about 1.5 years afterwards, until the baby starts sleeping well.

  2. sleep deprivation for only 1.5 years after……lucky you!man who has no time for hobbies

  3. Pregnant and post-pregnant women have a lot more stress and things to worry about, so how do we know if this effect is due to having more distractions?

  4. To the second anonymous commenter: Thanks for your message. It is true that stress and distractions could the the cause of the memory deficit. Hormonal changes could be another possibility. This study doesn’t say anything about what the cause or causes might be. Future research is needed for that.

  5. I would suspect that a lot of the post-pregnancy memory issues could be related to distraction and sleep deprivation. However, I found a noticeable drop in my prospective memory abilities while I was pregnant, but it only began during my second trimester. I was definitely more sleep deprived in the first though. So, the sleep deprivation hypothesis would not be a sufficient explanation for my personal situation.

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