You've probably wondered whether your baby will remember a particular moment, a certain toy, or that first trip to the zoo. While she won't be able to recall those memories later in life, they're still crucial to her development. That's because memories provide the building blocks for learning, says Lisa Oakes, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. "It's through remembering and retaining information from those experiences that babies are able to make sense of their environment," she explains.
Your baby's memory doesn't work like yours yet -- she's not able to think back about an event, so it's more like there's a sense of comfort or familiarity when she experiences something she recognizes. But her tiny memory muscles are still hard at work from the moment she's born. At first, she relies on what's known as procedural memory, which is responsible for motor skills like sucking, swallowing, making sounds, and eventually rolling over and walking, says memory researcher Stephen Christman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, in Ohio. By 6 weeks, she begins to build her semantic memory, or general world knowledge. This helps her recognize Mommy and Daddy as her parents, not strangers; it helps her learn that certain types of foods are tasty and others aren't; and later it will help her know her own name and the meaning of words like dog and ball. (A third type of memory, which will help her remember specific events like that trip to the zoo, won't start to kick in until around the time she reaches preschool.)
These memory skills will develop naturally, but there are also some easy ways for you to help them along.
When your baby experiences something for the first time, it stimulates the areas of his brain that are responsible for storing and retrieving memories, says Dr. Christman. It also causes his brain to form new connections among the nerve cells. The more of these neural connections your baby has, the more ways he has to process information (which makes him smarter!). Caressing his tummy with a feather, showing him how to squeeze a new bath toy, or playing together in the grass are all ways to help wire those connections. It's also important to let him figure out how to master some tasks on his own, such as how to handle blocks that keep tumbling.
That said, things don't have to be different all the time. "The brain is also fine-tuning some of the already-formed connections, and that process requires repetition," Dr. Oakes says. It's like when you watch a movie a second time and pick up on details you may have missed the first go-round. "Infants form stronger and deeper memories with repeated exposure," says Dr. Oakes. Do things over and over, like singing the same handful of songs, playing your baby's favorite game every day before naptime, or taking her for a stroll after lunch. Sticking to routines, while sometimes varying them in some way (for instance, saying "peekaroo" instead of "peekaboo" or swapping out one of your usual songs for a new one) does double duty: It strengthens the preexisting connections while forming new ones.
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. Once your baby starts to babble between 4 and 6 months, join in by smiling, making eye contact, repeating the sounds he makes, and then pausing to give him a chance to respond. "This back-and-forth teaches your baby how to take turns during a conversation and allows him to hear, remember, and repeat a few sounds at a time," says Sherry Artemenko, a speech-language pathologist and founder of Play on Words, a service that offers speech and language coaching.
Reading him books will help teach him context for new words. For instance, a book about a cow will use certain words (like cow and spots) repeatedly and in a variety of ways. The pictures will help sharpen his memory for those words. You can also narrate your daily activities using descriptive vocabulary. When you say, "Let's put on your red-striped shirt" or "I can feel the warm sand on my feet," you're helping your baby get ready to say his first word, says Artemenko.
Babies learn information more easily when it's paired with a melody, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. "It's the rhythm, rhyme, and pattern of the song that makes it easier to remember things that are set to music," Artemenko explains. For instance, with "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," the melody and rhyming words help your baby predict what comes next. That's why she'll catch on quickly to wriggle her fingers like a spider. To encourage memory retention through music, sing short, upbeat songs like "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," and point to each mentioned part. You can make up your own songs too. Holding up a photo of her grandparents while singing, "This is Grandma; this is Grandpa. They love you" to the "Where is Thumbkin?" melody may help them seem more familiar next time your little one sees them.
Your child is more likely to recall something if it's accompanied by a positive emotion. In a recent study at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, 5-month-olds remembered a geometric shape better when it was presented alongside someone with a happy voice and face as compared to when they were shown a shape coupled with someone with an angry or neutral voice or facial expression. "It seems that positive emotion heightens a baby's attention and arousal," says Ross Flom, Ph.D., lead author of the study and professor of psychology at BYU. So whether you're showing your infant how to make a toy light up, playing a matching game, or talking about the bird on the sidewalk, use lots of cheery facial and vocal expressions to help make the information stick.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Parents magazine.