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What Do Babies Remember?

“Look at your hand!” I exclaimed as my son peeled his tiny toddler fingers away from the imprint card. His handprint is now frozen in time upon the drying card, and now I have a Christmas ornament that will bring back memories of the time my son’s hand was actually that small. 

While his handprint is frozen in time upon the card, I wonder what is frozen in time upon his brain, or more specifically, his memory? What do babies remember? I can’t recall lying in my crib or being spoon fed mashed peas. I really can’t say I remember anything from when I was an infant.

Now that I am a mother, I want to make memories with my child. I want my children to look back one day at their childhood with fondness, but how exactly does memory work, especially with a baby? 

Well, memory is an interesting thing. I’m a nerd for the neurological science behind how the brain creates memories. Did you know that before 18 months of age, your child only forms something called implicit memory? Hang with me here, ‘cause this is really cool….

Implicit memories are recorded automatically without your awareness. Implicit memory doesn’t require conscious awareness or the act of you paying attention. When you recall an implicit memory, you do not have the sensation that you are remembering something. It is like an imprint on your brain that shapes how you perceive your world in the present. 

After around 18 months of age or a little after, you can begin to form explicit memories. These are memories created when you are actively paying attention to the moment. Explicit memories are recorded in your mind like a playback of the event. When accessing your explicit memory, you experience the sensation of recalling things like the first time you rode a bike, got an award at school, or lost a tooth.  

So during that first year or so of life, how do I actually make memories with my child? Well, my son won’t remember the time I looked away for a moment and he rolled off the bed (mom of the year here). He won’t remember how I picked him up quickly, looked him in the eye, and offered all the comfort I could give. He won’t have an explicit memory of those events. However, his implicit memory will hold on to all of it. Somewhere in his brain he will know a moment of panic (falling off the bed), but more importantly, he will know the comfort and care that followed. 

He won’t remember the time we made prints of his feet, framed them, and gave them to grandma. However, his implicit memory will attach to the joy, comfort, and security that being with his loving family provided.

He also won’t remember when I felt I was at the end of my rope and had nothing left to give, but still looked deep into his eyes and said “I may be tired, but I do love you.” The stamp of “I am loved” got locked into his little brain over and over and over again as I met his basic, yet frequent needs (your want more milk, really?), and also looked into eyes time and time again with an awareness of his emotional needs too. 

So whether you have a newborn, a toddler, or an older child, memories are always being formed. They just look a little different when you are a baby. Now that my son is nearly 3, we can look back at his newborn footprints and I can say “Look how very small your feet were!” He can’t recall this experience, but the imprint of that special moment is forever there in his mind.

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