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How does baby memory develop?

Elephants might never forget, but babies aren’t so absent-minded either. Even at the ripe age of 24 hours old, most babies are already starting to compartmentalize sights, smells, and sounds. For instance, the average baby will recognize his parents’ faces after just one week of “oohs” and “aahs.” Gradually, each baby learns how to make sense of all this stored information and apply it to everyday experiences like nursing sessions, diaper changes, and meeting people.

While most people don’t remember too much of their babyhood, there is evidence both that Baby’s experiences now will help shape the person that he becomes whether he remembers them or not, and that the way you talk to him influences how much of his early childhood he will remember. A 2009 study in Child Development suggests that children whose parents talk about their past, memories, or even the things they’ve done earlier in the day, in a more narrative way start to have distinct memories at an earlier average age. Babies start to build unconscious memories from their earliest days, building experiences and recognition, and some evidence suggests that the memories they can describe later develop along similar lines to their growing grasp of language.

The term “infantile amnesia” refers to normal process where people regularly forget most of the events that happen in their lives before some time around the age of 3, unless a very dramatic or traumatic event, like a broken bone, or a death in the family sticks in their minds. Younger children, including children as old as 7 have fairly good recall of their early lives, but as they grow older, early memories often fade.

How you can help

Recent research by the University of Sheffield suggests that for the things you want to help Baby learn how to do might go better shortly before his nap. For longer-term memories, though, the answer to encouraging them is even simpler – just talk to Baby about his life. Learning to think about the world in a narrative way will help give him the framework to think about his recent and, eventually, more distant past. It’s never too early to start, either. Maybe it doesn’t look like Baby is listening to you quite yet, but you never know when he will start understanding every word you say.

As a parent, you can boost Baby’s memory-making skills by regularly engaging him in songs and games. Before long, Baby should start to recognize the sound of your voice during a spirited rendition of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or a round of Peek-A-Boo. Baby may even try to mimic what you’re doing. This is a healthy sign of memory retention that also doubles as a perfect moment for grabbing the video camera. Which brings us to…

Making memories last

When we are told of stories from our own baby years, most of us find ourselves scratching our heads, saying things like, “Wow. Did I really eat sand at Venice Beach?” Keeping a record of Baby’s early childhood milestones – with a generous helping of heartwarming and embarrassing moments – is a gift that will pay off for decades. When he gets older, the two of you can relive these memories together and enjoy the closeness that such shared life experience instills.

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