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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.