Michelle Kasimbu was all well before she hit the second trimester. She lost track of her appointments and forgot quite easily. "It happened often as I progressed towards delivery," she says in retrospect.
She felt frustrated and puzzled by the phenomenon. Her forgetfulness affected every aspect of her life - even her driving. Caught flat footed, she resorted to the most superficial solution one could think of; sticky-notes. She wrote herself reminders and pinned them on the dashboard. This too didn't work for her as she kept forgetting to read them.
With a bulging tummy ready to pop any time, Michelle needed her mind to function optimally, lest she forget something as important as directions to her house. As funny as it may sound, Michelle isn't smiling; for all she knows the experience was 'helish' at a time she anticipated the joys of motherhood.
Her memory began failing her from the second trimester. One particular incident jolted her to begin search for a lasting solution. "I was coming from work and passed by the car wash. I left the car for the service then left for home on foot," she narrates, laughing off the pregnancy hang-ups.
Exhausted from twin shocks of work and pregnancy, she slumped on the sofa, 'letting off the guard' with her nanny at her disposal. She had forgotten her phone and wallet – with everything inside – in the car and only realised almost an hour later when she needed to make a call.
Even more perplexing is her first line of thought when it happened. "I checked the sofa, sifting through the cushions to find the phone. I went on searching through the house and couldn't find it. I asked the nanny if she could have seen it but her response was not affirmative. That is when I thought back through my day and realised I must have left them in the car," says Michelle.
She sent the nanny to fetch them and true to her suspicion, both were in the car. Considering she had left her car with a stranger at the car wash, she realised she could have lost an assortment of important documents: Bank cards, identification cards, insurance cards.
But of all her pregnancy bloopers, what hurt the most was missing appointments with important clients; something she feels reflected negatively on her professionalism.
"I didn't like that I couldn't meet my clients' expectations: I couldn't give them quality services as they deserved," she laments.
Michelle realises she is not the only woman to have experienced memory spells. Three years ago, her cousin too, presented with similar symptoms while pregnant.
Michelle's experiences may appear stretched to the end of the string but they mirror what Cynthia Chebii, a new mother who gave birth last February, went through. The happy mother recalls her mind 'blocked off'. "I would forget where I placed something within the house. I spent the next two or so days looking until I bumped into it basking in open space and I would end up feeling stupid," says Cynthia, currently nursing her one-month old son. There is yet to be acclaimed scientific studies on what happens to the female brain during the last stages of pregnancy and early into motherhood. However, Dr Pius Kigama, a physician psychiatrist attached to University of Nairobi believes several physiological developments may have something to do with the phenomenon.
"A lot of blood is diverted to the developing foetus during pregnancy," Kigama points out, "with the resultant effect being that the mother 'survives' on less blood. For optimal function, the brain needs a lot of oxygen and nutrients, which it derives from the blood." But hormonal imbalances may also be blamed, says the medic. The placenta, he says, has a higher affinity to hormones in the pregnant woman's body. This would mean then that the rest of the body suffers deprivation. Since hormonal functions are directly linked to brain functions, memory, Kigama postulates, may be affected as well.
Continued memory lapses may be expected after birth since the shedding of the placenta means all the hormones imbibed within the tissue is lost and don't find their way back into the body.
Dr Dorcas Muchiri is a gynaecologist at Kenyatta National Hospital admits that baby brain is fairly clouded in mystery. But even she too, believes hormonal changes may have something to do with the frequent memory complains from those who are expectant or have just given birth.
She says: "The woman's body experiences drastic hormonal changes during pregnancy and right after birth. Rise and fall of oestrogen and progesterone have the capability of causing memory blues to women."
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This should, however, not be taken as a blanket phenomenon that affects all women, warns both Kigama and Muchiri. The psychiatrist says that genetic predisposition, alcoholism, drug use, and past mental health history are all factors, which affect the final bearing on the pulse of a subject's memory.
Muchiri also argues that nursing mothers may suffer sleep deficits in the early months after delivery. Lack of enough shut-eye has previously been linked to lowered brain functions. In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom documented that "disturbed sleep patterns can impair memory, shrink the brain and raise stress levels."
Dire memory lapses could be a sign of serious underlying brain problems according to Kigama. "They shouldn't be played down as normal pregnancy occurrences especially for those going through extreme cases," he says. "Such should be reported promptly for evaluation and subsequent diagnosis." As the debate rages on, a newly published study has rubbished the notion of baby brain, publishing findings that show the condition only exists in the mind – much in the same way paranoia grips people in tricky situations.
Researchers from Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, USA, led by Psychology Prof Michael Larson, wrote in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuro-psychology that pregnant women are prone to feeling 'I really am doing badly right now'. This, they found, affects the woman's brain activity; the expectation of baby brain may be so strong that a pregnant woman is extra-alert to memory lapses. Therefore, the forgetting may happen no more than usual but the women may notice them often, leading to a false alarm about losing memory. In Europe and America, it is documented that about 80 per cent of pregnant women complain of baby brain. The same situation could be true in Kenya; which begs questions. Could the women have been hallucinating all along? Does baby brain truly exist or has the woman's brain been lying to her? Why do women complain of forgetfulness in the last trimesters and early into motherhood?
Something needs to be discovered.