What Does Your Baby Remember?

Memories of Babyhood?

Infantile amnesia -- the phrase scientists use to describe the fact that humans can rarely access memories of events that happened before age 3 or 4 -- is still a mystery, but it's definitely a fact of life. If you took those same children in Fivush's study who, at age 3, could remember the Disney World trip they took at 18 months, and asked them about that trip again at age 20, "they probably wouldn't remember much," says David Sobel, PhD, of Brown University in Rhode Island. Why?

Perhaps, says Sobel, our emerging ability to use language forces us to encode and reorganize our memories differently by age 4 than we did as babies. At any rate, nobody knows yet whether our earliest preverbal memories are wiped out or merely covered up.

"The bottom line is that there are lots of areas of the brain that aren't fully developed at birth," says Sobel. "It might just be that, by age 3 or 4, we experience such an overload of information that something's got to go."

At the same time, even if your baby won't retain specific memories of a family trip to visit her grandparents or the elaborate princess cake you baked for her second birthday party, she will recall an overall sense of warmth and love when she thinks back on her childhood. And if you talk about these experiences, she's more likely to remember them. In essence, parents who reminisce in more detail with their children, and who include details that put the events into context, "have children who are better able to recall their past experiences in detailed, coherent narratives," says Fivush.

In addition, talking about past experiences "creates a shared life together that helps your child know who she is. And as she develops a sense of her past, she will also develop a sense of her possibilities in the future," says Fivush.

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