The experiences we have in infancy can become lifelong memories.
Article written by Greer Kirshenbaum Ph.D.
Babies don't form explicit memories, including autobiographical memories, from 0-3 years old.
Babies do form implicit memories, including emotional, sensory and motor memories, from 0-3 years old.
Lifelong memories are encoded into the stress and emotional systems of the brain.
One of the most pervasive myths about infancy, age 0-3 years old, is that infants don’t remember anything, so experience in infancy doesn’t really matter. I’ve heard this from even the most informed and open-minded baby specialists, such as neonatologists, pediatricians, lactation consultants, and pediatric therapists. It is time to unlearn this myth, which stems from a lack of clarity around memory.
Memory means that an event occurs to permanently change brain cells and brain function. There are different forms of memory, including explicit and implicit memories (1). We tend to focus only on explicit memory, which includes autobiographical memories of conscious events in our lives—the “what,” “where,” “when,” “who” memories. In infancy, the brain does form autobiographical memories, so infants have memories of events while they are infants. However, as adults we experience infantile or childhood amnesia, in which years after infancy we are unable to recall events in infancy from zero to three years. This is thought to be due to a rapidly developing hippocampus in infancy. (2) It is true that most people don’t seem to remember events that took place in infancy, like their first bite of food or their first step, because our long-term memories for events begin to form around age three to four years.
However, a sizable amount of memory from infancy is stored in the brain as implicit memory, and this involves the unconscious mind. (3) The massive growth of the infant brain means that a ton of memories and critical brain areas are formed in babyhood. Lifelong memories are encoded into the structure of the stress and emotional systems. In infancy, the brain creates non-autobiographical implicit memories like sensory, motor, and emotional memory. While babies may not remember discrete events from their infancy, they will remember how to eat, how to walk, and, importantly, their stress systems and emotional systems will remember how the people they love made them feel.
I like to adapt a Maya Angelou quote to illustrate this point: “[Babies] will forget what you said, [babies] will forget what you did, but [babies] will never forget how you made them feel.” Babies do not forget how they were nurtured. We may have limited recollection of early life, but nurturing experiences change our DNA, stress systems, and emotional systems and stay in our brains. So in fact, the reality is that the infant brain has a huge capacity for memory. We can best support our babies when we understand how powerful this period of life truly is.
Your presence, relationship, communication, play, laughter, and responsiveness with your baby in their first three years is transformative to the brain they will have for the rest of their life. As I remind people often, you do not need to be perfect. Any amount you nurture benefits your baby. And repair is always possible for those inevitable moments (or days, or periods) when our anger, frustration, or busy schedules get the best of us; in fact, repair is an important aspect of nurture—it helps build resilience. Your baby needs you to be your wonderful imperfect self. They benefit when we have intentions to be nurturing, and they benefit when we offer repair when it’s needed. They remember it all in a meaningful way.
1. Squire, L. R. & Dede, A. J. O. Conscious and unconscious memory systems. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol 7, a021667 (2015). 2. Alberini, C. M. & Travaglia, A. Infantile amnesia: A critical period of learning to learn and remember. J Neurosci 37, 5783– 5795 (2017); Akers, K. G. et al. Hippocampal neurogenesis regulates forgetting during adulthood and infancy. Science 344, 598– 602 (2014). 3. V.hringer, I. A. et al. The development of implicit memory from infancy to childhood: On average performance levels and interindividual differences. Child Dev 89, 370– 382 (2017).