Whenever Helen Sandoval breastfed her infant son, Jonathan, she'd prop him up on a Boppy pillow. By the time he was 4 months old, he seemed to remember the drill. "When he was hungry and beginning to fuss, I'd wrap the pillow around me and he'd quiet down, knowing he was about to be nursed," says the mom from Palo Alto, California.
Like Sandoval, many new parents are wowed by their baby's amazing memory. Recent research indicates that an infant's ability to store and recall images and other information begins at birth. "It's just fleeting and subconscious at first," explains Yuko Munakata, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Scientists agree that the things a baby sees, hears, and touches every day leave a lasting impression and help him make sense of the world. Want to give your child's budding memory a boost? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Even newborns form memories. Faces, voices, and smells of familiar people?especially Mommy?leave the greatest impression on an infant in the early months. "Babies also quickly master simple skills, like which way to turn their head toward your breast or a bottle," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What's Going On in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.
What you can do: Your child loves the sound of your voice, so use it. While she won't understand the words to "Rock-a-bye Baby," she will be comforted by hearing you sing it to her. What's more, your little one will form a memory that associates the song with bedtime.
2. Your baby's memory is a powerful teaching tool. By 6 months, an infant picks up on his previous experiences, says Leslie J. Carver, Ph.D., director of the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. If you show him how to press a button on a toy to make it light up or play a song, he may remember it and even start to do it on his own.
What you can do: Sing songs with hand movements (like "Open, Shut Them"), and play interactive games (like pat-a-cake). Stimulate your child's senses too: When you're picking peaches at the market, show him the fruit, name it, and let him touch the fuzz and smell the sweetness.
3. Repetition helps her store information. Your child needs to hear or see something dozens of times before it becomes part of her memory. Once it does, she'll find reassurance in the familiar in uncertain situations. Although babies normally prefer new toys (because they have more to learn about them), Dr. Munakata found that when she lowered the lights so 7-month-olds couldn't see the toys clearly, the babies usually reached for ones they had played with previously.
What you can do: Establish routines for naptime, mealtime, and bathtime. "Being consistent lets your baby remember how and when things happen," Dr. Carver says.
4. A baby's recall takes off at around 9 months. At this age babies develop the ability to remember people and things that are out of sight. They may even associate a face with an action: If Grandpa likes to put his eyeglasses in his pocket, your baby may reach for the pocket when he sees him. The flip side of your baby's expanding memory: He's likely to get separation anxiety because he can distinguish you from other caregivers and feels abandoned when you go away.
What you can do: To ease separation anxiety, play peekaboo or hide one of his favorite playthings under a burp pad?and then reveal it. Also have him cope with smaller separations: Leave your child in his crib and say, "I'm going to the bathroom, and I'll be back in a minute." After a few repetitions, he'll realize that when you go away you always come back.
5. Your child won't recall events from her infancy. Most people can't remember specific events prior to age 3. Some scientists believe this is because preverbal memories are stored in a form that's inaccessible to the better-developed brain. Yet your baby will retain the skills she learned from her first year.
What you can do: Meet your baby's basic needs in a loving way, and have fun together. You'll lay the groundwork for happy memories that will last a lifetime.