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Babies' Short and Long-Term Memory

By: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 1 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Child Development Babies' Memory

Years ago child development experts believed that babies didn't know a whole lot and what they did understand wasn't retained for very long. These days professionals in the child development arena will attest to what parents have suspected all along -- that babies are able to understand and retain considerable information and that their memory capacity increases dramatically with age and maturity.

When they first come into the world, infants operate on pure instinct. They are innately equipped with primitive survival reflexes, such as rooting and sucking. If you brush the cheek of a newborn baby, the infant will turn toward that side, looking for a breast or bottle for feeding. If a nipple is placed into the mouth of a newborn, the sucking response is automatic.

Beyond Innate Memory
While it can be difficult to get a true understanding of all that babies know and remember (after all, they can't yet tell you what they are thinking), there are some clear signals that let parents know that their babies are gathering information on a daily basis. It doesn't take long for babies to form attachments to their primary caregivers, preferring familiar faces to new ones, proof that even young babies have some capacity to remember.

Even before they are eating solid foods (typically at about the six month mark), babies will show excitement when they see a bottle being warmed or when they sit with Mum to nurse, showing that they have a clear understanding of what is about to happen. Being able to anticipate an action shows a clear ability to draw from memory.

By the time that they are six months old, some babies understand who "Mummy" and "Daddy" are, turning to look at the correct person when the name is mentioned, even though it is unlikely that they can repeat the words. Sometimes, the fact that babies are developing memory skills can make life a bit more difficult for Mum and Dad. The first several visits to the doctor, even those when inoculations are given, don't usually cause babies any distress (until they feel the prick of the needle, of course!), but as they get a bit older, babies may fuss upon arrival, showing that they have formed an unpleasant association about the doctor's office -- terrific advancement in the baby's cognitive development, but not so much fun for the parents who have to deal with a very grouchy little one!

Holding On To Memories
While virtually all parents will attest that their babies have considerable short term memory, their ability to retain information for an extended period can be harder to determine. If babies live near their grandparents and see them on a regular basis, they will likely respond to their visits with immediate smiles, but if visits are only occasional, babies are far less likely to be welcoming, indicating that they may not hold on to memories for long periods. Some researchers would disagree with this, however.

The results of one study by Klein & Meltzoff, done in 1999 on 12 month old babies, would seem to indicate that they have the ability to not only process information quickly, but also to retain that information for at least a month. Groups of babies were shown five separate toys and researchers demonstrated unique ways of playing with the objects, being careful not to allow parents to watch the demonstration so that they would not repeat it later. The adults demonstrated the toys to the little ones for a period of only 20 seconds each. The results?

Three minutes later, 70% of the babies remembered the special ways to play that they were shown. That percentage dropped to just over 50% at the one week point, and four weeks after the initial meeting, about 50% of the babies still chose to play with the toys in the manner than they had been shown. These results are impressive, especially when you consider that the toys were displayed to them for a timeframe of only 20 seconds. Clearly, babies have the ability to store and recall memories.

Looking Back
Just how long babies can hold onto their memories is uncertain, but their short term memory is clearly well-functioning. For most of us, our earliest memories are not from our infancy, but more likely from when we were preschool aged. Attempting to recall a true early childhood memory can be a bit tricky because it can be hard to distinguish between what we actually remember ourselves from simply being so familiar with a favourite family story that it begins to feel like a memory. Parents are famous for repeating tales of the oh-so-cute things that their little ones say or do that in time, the subjects of the stories may just feel that they remember the incidents themselves!

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