The topic of what babies and toddlers can remember, and for how long, has captivated scientists for decades. Thanks to fascinating research we now know that a lot goes on in babies’ brains, including the ability to remember – starting in the womb.
Studies involving pregnant women show that memory, in the form of recognition, begins before babies are born when they can recognize things like the sound of their mother’s voice, or nursery rhymes they’ve heard multiple times.
Other research, by psychologist Carolyn Rovee-Collier, tested memory by placing babies on their backs under a hanging mobile. Researchers then attached the mobile to the babies’ feet with a ribbon, so that when they kicked the mobile moved. Later, researchers placed the same babies under the same mobile, but without the ribbon attached. They found that even 2 month-old babies remembered to kick, up to two days later. 6 month-olds remembered for about 2 weeks.
What this study and others found is that throughout the baby and toddler years, children are capable of forming memories and holding them for increasingly longer periods of time (boosted by repeat exposure).
Towards the end of the first year, imitation, object permanence (understanding that objects exist even if you can’t see them), and separation anxiety are in full-force as babies learn to mimic specific actions and understand that things exist even when they can’t see them (including mom and dad, hence the tears when they’re out of sight). Toddlers also remember specific events.You may be amazed when your 22 month-old points to an ice cream shop she visited with Grandma two months ago and says “Gamma!”
Why Children Eventually Forget Details and Events of their Early Years
As impressive as little ones’ memories are, details and events of their early years will fade as they get older. By adulthood they won’t remember them at all. Coined “childhood amnesia,” some experts blame this phenomenon of forgetting being a baby or toddler on the simple fact that the area of the brain that stores long-term, conscious memories isn’t fully-developed until later in childhood.
Other experts link this forgetting to the fact that our earliest experiences happen before language is well-established. Memories about life events are autobiographical, or stories we tell ourselves. So, they argue, we can’t remember an event that happened before we could tell ourselves a story about it.
What Little Ones Don’t Forget
Even though we can’t consciously remember our earliest years, there’s another, vastly important type of memory that we do carry into adulthood: The unconscious, “implicit” memories of how learned to view the world.
Usually, implicit memory refers to anything we remember automatically, like how to tie shoes or identify people by their voice. But implicit memory can also be emotional: You may feel automatically warm and content when you smell something baking, without consciously remembering that your beloved grandmother was a habitual baker.
The emotional aspect of implicit memory is why nurturing attachment and positive associations with little ones has such a powerful impact on their future. If you throw a beautiful first birthday party for your child and feel wistful that he won’t remember it, take heart: He may not recall the event, but if you consistently expose him to happy, loving gatherings of family and friends, he will form implicit memories connecting these types of gatherings with feelings of happiness and belonging.
What can a Parent/Caregiver Do to Engage a Child’s Memory?
Our BabySparks program has memory-specific activities (such as “Memory Games” and “Recalling Adventures”). But because memory and learning are intertwined, any of our activities give your little one’s memory a workout. Reading interactively, establishing routines, and teaching independent self-care all reinforce memory tasks such as predicting and sequencing. Frequent, quality chats with children help them remember words. Actively focusing on the same thing as a child helps him remember things longer. Adequate sleep (especially quality naps) have also been shown to improve memory.
When it comes to the implicit, emotional memories that form a child’s view of the world, consistent, warm responsiveness creates the lasting memory that one is safe, loved, and capable – a memory with lasting, powerful effects on all aspects of a child’s future.