What Does Your Baby Remember?

My Memory, Myself

Not only does memory help us make sense of the world, it also helps us make sense of ourselves. The ability to recall what happened forms a large part of our identity because our past experiences are what we draw on to learn new things, and what ultimately make each of us unique.

No one really knows when autobiographical memories begin. But by age 1, your baby will remember certain past events in his own life even without cues -- long before he has the language ability to describe those memories. I discovered this for myself when I took my son Aidan, then 4, to the city library for a book I couldn't find locally. On our way, I told him where we were going. "Oh yeah, I remember that place," Aidan said.

"I don't think so," I answered, since Aidan wasn't yet 2 the last time we'd made the trip.

"But I do," he insisted. "The library has big stairs, plants around a fountain in the middle of the floor, and a rug the color of skin."

Well, guess what? That library does have a rug the color of skin. And big stairs. And a fountain in the middle, surrounded by ferns. Aidan had indeed remembered it, even though he hadn't been in the building for two years and couldn't say more than a few words the last time he saw it.

According to memory researcher Robyn Fivush, PhD, of Emory University in Atlanta, most toddlers are able to recall past events, especially if those events are special, like trips to theme parks or other distinctive places. It's only because their language is limited that we don't know what they're remembering. She believes that babies develop a sense of past versus present time somewhere between ages 1 and 2; for instance, when she quizzed a group of 3-year-olds about trips they'd taken to Disney World when they were 18 months old, she discovered that "their memories were surprisingly accurate, corresponding well to what their parents also remembered."

Of course, what most parents want to know is what their children will remember as adults. This year, for example, Georgia Epstein of Newbury, Massachusetts, is planning to take her daughters, ages 2 and 5, on a road trip through the Southwest. "I want to do all I can to give my children happy memories of their childhood," she says.

Can we make good memories stick in the first years, when research indicates that the earliest memories adults hold on to only date back to age 3 or 4? According to experts, the answer is a maddeningly complex "yes and no."

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