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Your Baby & Toddler - - TALKING POINT -

You’ll never forget the day your baby was born, or when he took his first step and when he said “mama” for the first time. These are some of your most trea­sured mem­o­ries. While they felt ground­break­ing to you, your baby will have no rec­ol­lec­tion of these mem­o­ries at all in his fu­ture life. Ask an adult what their first mem­ory is, and they will of­ten tell you about some­thing that hap­pened when they were around three years old. This is the av­er­age age of re­mem­ber­ing things from child­hood, sim­ply be­cause re­call of mem­o­ries af­ter the age of three years is im­proved by the devel­op­ment of the pre­frontal cor­tex, ex­plains clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and child neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist Joal­ida Smit.

“The mem­o­ries may ex­ist in the brain, but they can­not be re­called spon­ta­neously. It needs the pre­frontal cor­tex to pro­vide or­der and co­her­ence of au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences. How­ever, if you ask a child of about eight years about their in­fancy, and you give them spe­cific prompts, then it’s eas­ier for them to re­mem­ber as you are pro­vid­ing a cue for re­trieval, which is less dif­fi­cult than free or spon­ta­neous re­call. Then it’s eas­ier for them to pro­duce mem­o­ries from even be­fore they were three,” says Joal­ida. So, a chat about that Thomas the Tank En­gine birthday cake you made for his sec­ond birthday could help your older child ac­cess the mem­ory. brain makes mul­ti­ple neu­ral con­nec­tions in the first two years of life, then what is not used, is pruned away. This is to en­sure that the brain works more ef­fec­tively and can spe­cialise tasks to spe­cific brain ar­eas. This process of prun­ing is called in­fan­tile am­ne­sia,” says Joal­ida.

Be­fore the age of three the brain uses a dis­perse net­work con­nec­tion to store mem­o­ries, but af­ter prun­ing, mem­o­ries will be stored in a spe­cific lo­ca­tion, mostly the hip­pocam­pus. Con­text-rich per­sonal in­for­ma­tion may be lost as a re­sult of prun­ing, she ex­plains. “If you ask a very ver­bal two-year-old, they will re­mem­ber breast­feed­ing or even the taste of milk if they were breast­fed up to the age of 18 months,” she says. Ask the three-year-old how­ever, and he will not even re­mem­ber he was breast­fed.

While re­search con­ducted by the Uni­ver­sity of Florida’s Col­lege of Nurs­ing has shown that foe­tuses can recognise a nurs­ery rhyme sung by their mother by the 34th week of preg­nancy, Joal­ida says it’s im­prob­a­ble that a child will re­mem­ber their birth or early life. “Most of a baby’s brain is ac­tu­ally de­vel­oped out­side of the womb. A new­born in­fant does not come with the me­chan­ics for long-term mem­ory,” she says, but this may not mean that a birth trauma does not have an im­pact on their ex­pe­ri­ence of self, only that they can­not ver­bally re­call this event. This is re­ferred to as im­plicit mem­ory.

and mak­ing sounds, and even­tu­ally rolling over and walk­ing, says mem­ory re­searcher Stephen Christ­man, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Toledo. By six weeks, your baby be­gins to build a se­man­tic mem­ory, or gen­eral world knowl­edge. This helps him recognise you as his par­ents, not strangers, and that cer­tain things taste bet­ter than oth­ers. “We know that within the first six months of life an in­fant forms a mem­ory of the mother’s face and is able to seek it out in a crowd. They also de­velop an early mem­ory for her tone of voice,” says Joal­ida. That is why bab­bling, coo­ing and talk­ing to your baby, and mak­ing eye con­tact when you do so, is so im­por­tant, she says. “It ori­ents the baby to the voice and face and builds up a mem­ory of the mother, which is part of a se­cure at­tach­ment.” These mem­o­ries are not ex­plicit, mean­ing they can­not al­ways be re­called ver­bally. Rather they are im­plicit and be­come the fab­ric of how we ex­pe­ri­ence the world.

You may be con­vinced that you can re­mem­ber ear­lier – say a day your fa­ther brought you home a puppy and you were still tod­dling around in a nappy. This is most likely kely a “re­con­structed mem­ory”,ory”, says Joal­ida. We es­sen­tially ially form two dif­fer­ent types of mem­o­ries, and each one is formed in a dif­fer­ent part of the brain: declar­a­tive mem­o­ries, such as facts or events, and non-declar­a­tive mem­o­ries, such as sen­sory, pro­ce­dural and emo­tional mem­o­ries. So, for ex­am­ple, if there was a strong emo­tional tone to an early ex­pe­ri­ence it is likely that frag­ments will be re­mem­bered. If you are shown a pho­to­graph of an event, or told a story about it, you “tag” this emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence onto the im­age or story, and cre­ate a re­con­structed mem­ory.

The early child­hood “non­declar­a­tive” mem­o­ries can be also re­called if they are prompted by a trig­ger, such as when you smell some­thing as­so­ci­ated with them (doesn’t a cer­tain per­fume al­ways re­mind you of your granny’s house?).

The fact that your child doesn’t re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing that hap­pens to them in their early life doesn’t mean that those ex­pe­ri­ences are com­pletely lost to them, how­ever. “The non-declar­a­tive mem­o­ries are also formed by ‘do­ing’ things. Your par­ent may have re­peat­edly done a task such as dress­mak­ing while you were a tod­dler. By watch­ing her do a task, you may know au­to­mat­i­cally how to cut a pat­tern, be­cause the skill is locked in pro­ce­dural mem­ory. In this case young chil­dren have ac­cess to mem­o­ries of­ten in­ac­ces­si­ble to ver­bal re­trieval be­cause it was stored in a dif­fer­ent area than the hip­pocam­pus, which is your mem­ory for events and things you can name,” says Joal­ida.

We also kn know that ba­bies have an in­terna in­ter­nal emo­tional life and trauma or rough han­dling can be en­coded as non­ver­bal mem­o­ries, says Joal­ida. Emo­tional mem­o­ries are en­coded and ac­ti­vated by an in­tri­cate net­work in the brain called the lim­bic sys­tem. “So, for ex­am­ple, when some­one shouts at you as an adult, you may ex­pe­ri­ence the same anx­i­ety or emo­tional re­sponse as you did when you were younger, be­cause it ac­ti­vates your lim­bic sys­tem,” says Joal­ida. She ex­plains this as a “mem­ory cap­tured in the body in a non-ver­bal form”.

There is much con­tro­versy around this, par­tic­u­larly around cases of early child abuse. While some ar­gue these re­cov­ered mem­o­ries are re­con­structed and in­ac­cu­rate, oth­ers ar­gue that they con­tain frag­ments of ex­pe­ri­ence, which can be ac­cessed via dreams. “Some psy­cho­an­a­lysts work­ing in this field say that you can re­cover these non-ver­bal mem­o­ries and turnt hem into lan­guage,” says Joal­ida. Chil­dren whose par­ents talk to them of­ten have a big­ger vo­cab­u­lary and start speak­ing sooner be­cause they store many of the words they hear in their mem­ory. Read­ing books also helps to teach con­text for new words. For in­stance, a book about a dog will use cer­tain words (like dog and bone) re­peat­edly and in a va­ri­ety of ways. The pic­tures will help sharpen his mem­ory for those words.

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