Understanding childhood memory

From their birth, their first word, to their first step, and every milestone in between, parents are advised to capture every moment of their child’s young life, and rightly so – they work overtime to preserve these precious fleeting moments.

They do this because they know that one day these memories will cease to exist in the mind of the child.

Search through your own memory bank, and your earliest memories are most likely to come from some time after your third birthday.

This forgetfulness has been dubbed childhood amnesia, the curious development where memories of life prior to the age of 3 to 3½ years are simply irretrievable.

Due to this phenomenon, researchers mistakenly believed that childhood memory was either non-existent, or that the structures of the brain necessary for creating and retaining memories had not yet been formed.

A game-changing study conducted by Emory University professor of psychology, Patricia Bauer – a specialist in early memory – would prove otherwise.

Despite continuing growth and undeveloped brain structures, Bauer observed, "…even as young as the second year of life, children had very robust memories for… specific past events."

From the moment they are born, your child’s brain is not very different from what it will be once it reaches maturity, and only lacks the ability to retain memories as a result of the massive changes taking place from inside the womb to the third birthday.

"It doesn't mean they're not working at all," Bauer explains. "But they're not working as efficiently — and therefore not as effectively — as they're going to be working in later childhood, and certainly in adulthood."

During ages 2 to 3, the brain creates an excessive amount of brain connectors or messengers (known as synapses), and from childhood to adolescence these extra connectors are slowly discarded through a process known as pruning.

This process is vital in stimulating and strengthening the brain, providing the foundation for basic yet vital cerebral functions such as learning and memory.

What is most likely to be remembered? Studies lead by Professor Carole Peterson of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, whose research focuses on memory and language, concluded that memories most likely to remain are the “very emotional, very significant events".

"And what we have found is that even 10 years later, children have enormously good memory of that."

Curiously, another key memory-retaining factor (one which parents are able to influence) is storytelling. Peterson found that when parents shape experiences into an engaging story, "those are the kinds of memories that are going to last.”

Read More:

What are your and your children's earliest memories? Share your childhood memories by emailing chatback@parent24.com and we may publish them.