Memory isn’t simply a passive development. Here’s how you can play a role in its growth.

Ever hear the idea that babies are born as complete “blank slates”? Scientists now know that learning, including memory development, begins while they’re still in the womb. By the time you meet your newborn, his brain is already hard at work, and this ability to learn and remember continues to grow right along with him.

Baby’s First Memories

Babies only hours old can tell the difference between their mother’s language and the sounds of foreign speech, according to research done in 2013 by Pacific Lutheran University. The newborns were exposed to two languages, and they showed greater interest (measured by sucks on a pacifier) when they heard the foreign sounds. That finding indicates that they had learned and remembered the “mother tongue” sounds they heard in utero, and were drawn to what sounded new.

Previously, it was thought that babies needed to be exposed to language over the first months of life before they could make this distinction. This remarkable study shows that the brain’s memory skills are hard at work well before birth.

Baby’s Early Memory

Memory is complex; several different kinds play a role in learning. In the early months, your baby’s immediate memory helps him to figure out the world as he builds on discoveries to absorb language and reach developmental milestones. Memory helps attract him to new things and sustain his attention during the dynamic brain growth of the first year of life.

Around 8 to 12 months, the ability to remember people and places seems to take a giant leap forward. This is known as short-term memory. It helps explain why separation anxiety takes hold—your baby remembers you and other familiar things even when you’re not there, and he becomes upset by your absence.

Long-Term Memory

The duration of memories becomes longer over the first 18 months. By 17 to 21 months, toddlers can recall toys in ways that 9- to 12-month-olds cannot, one Harvard study found.

For the most part, though, children and adults have trouble remembering single events from babyhood. Studies seem to show that until the end of the first year of life, the maturing brain doesn’t really capture single experiences and retrieve the memory of them later on. It’s long been said that our earliest long-term memories start at around three and a half years, though research done in 2014 at Cornell University suggests the actual age is probably earlier.

Building Your Baby’s Memory

Helping to develop your baby’s everyday memory for learning is actually easy. You don’t need to do anything special—no flashcards or brain tricks necessary! All that’s needed is lots of love and attention, stimulation, and nutrition.

Wide exposure to language stimulates later cognitive ability, including memory.

Expose your baby to more than one language.

Hearing a parent or caregiver speak a second language can only help, not harm, your baby’s brain.

Play with your baby.

It’s a good idea to provide a variety of different playthings, so he doesn’t grow bored with the same ones.

Provide brain-nourishing nutrition.

Your baby's brain more than doubles in size the first year of life. It's an important time to give her DHA, an important building block of the rapidly developing brain.

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