At 22 months old, Karen Bocskay's daugther, Alyssa, started singing — out of the blue — the Tommy Thumb nursery rhyme to her infant brother, William. It was a touching family moment, but for Bocskay, it was also perplexing. This ditty had been a favourite during storytime at the local library in Cambridge, Ont., where Bocskay had taken Alyssa as a baby. They’d stopped attending the drop-in classes when Alyssa was nine months old — and yet she still remembered it, even though they hadn’t sung or played that song for more than a year.
“I was blown away. She had all of the words and the correct tune down pat. I asked her where she learned that song, and she told me flat out, ‘At the library!’”
The subject of toddler memory is fascinating not only for parents — who may fervently hope their kids won’t remember the time Mommy or Daddy lost his or her temper and accidentally swore at that bad driver — but also for researchers who study early memory.
When children learn and remember things they experienced as babies or toddlers, such as the alphabet song, this knowledge is considered “implicit” memory. The average age of the first “explicit” (or episodic) memory that can be recalled by an adult is not until about three-and-a-half years old, on average. An episodic memory plays out in the mind like a story. The pre-verbal diaper years that precede the first episodic memory are usually lost somewhere in the ether, a phenomenon referred to as “infantile” or “childhood amnesia.” Experts agree that older children and adults don’t typically retain memories from this period because the memories were made before language was a big part of their lives. (Even if a child this young can recall a memory, they’re not able to verbally convey it.)
And yet, when you ask a young child about her first memory, she’s likely to retrieve a snapshot or event from toddlerhood.
My own daughter, age seven, swears she remembers feeding the cat when she was two. She describes herself wearing a white shirt and diaper, pouring the dry cat food into a bowl with a blue, yellow and green “triangle design.” What’s telling is we got rid of the cat and all of its accessories (including the triangle-designed bowl) not long after her second birthday, so her recollection must be accurate. I’m certain we never took a photo of that cat dish, either.
Whether she holds onto this memory into late childhood and beyond, though, won’t be known until I ask her again in five or six years.
In a study published in the journal Memory in 2005, researcher Carole Peterson, a professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, found that six- to nine-year-olds have verbally accessible memories from toddlerhood that seem to disappear as they get older. A follow-up study published in Child Development in 2011, which tracked four- to 11-year-olds over a two-year period, found that “earliest memory” changed as the children aged, even if they were given cues about the original earliest memory from two years prior. It was infantile amnesia in action.
“We documented the fact that children were losing memories,” explains Peterson. Intrigued, she decided to find out why some memories stay and others go. This newest study, which is awaiting publication, found that memories “infused with emotion, either positive or negative,” were three times more likely to stick, says Peterson. The other factor was coherence — the memory needed to fit together as a whole, in narrative form, rather than just being a stand-alone snippet. In other words, if you want your toddler to remember something, talking about it with her helps, too. “Children acquire the habit of remembering life events because they talk about them,” says Peterson.
A version of this article appeared in our May 2013 issue with the headline "First memory," p. 62.