Infantile amnesia: when the first memories?

June 3, 2024

In today’s article we discuss infantile amnesia, the reason why no adult can have memories of early childhood.

We will see what it is, what causes it, when the first stable memories appear, and how to help the child remember events.

What is infantile amnesia?

Childhood amnesia refers to the common inability of adults to consciously access autobiographical memories from early life.

Although it may seem like a simple issue related to memory decline with age, in reality childhood amnesia is influenced by several socio-cultural factors that we will discuss in the article

As early as 1905 in the fledgling world of psychoanalysis, people began to talk about this phenomenon, pointing out the inability of adults to recall personal events from early life without the help of photographs or other people’s stories.

In addition, there may be neurological causes why it is more difficult for long-term memories to form in the brain of a child less than 3 years old, and these also affect the fact that we have no true memories of the first two years of life.

What is the cause of children’s amnesia?

The lack of memories from the first years of life, known as infant amnesia, is still considered a scientific enigma.

Children as young as 2-3 years old can recall personal events for significant periods, but adults lose most of these memories.

Memories begin to become more frequent between ages 3 and 6, a period known as soft amnesia, and then become accessible to most people around age 6.

This age is considered the midpoint of childhood amnesia, the time when the first stable memories begin to form.

In any case, however, the causes of childhood amnesia are still the subject of debate and research among scholars.

There are, however, several theories and which have identified some concomitant factors:

  • Brain development: the brain undergoes rapid development during the first years of life, as new synaptic connections are formed and brain regions involved in memory mature. This development can affect the ability to remember early childhood events.
  • Socio-cultural factors: culture and membership in a cultural group can affect the ability to access childhood memories. Studies have shown that different cultures report different ages of early autobiographical memory.
  • Individual factors: the ability to recall early childhood events may vary from person to person, with some individuals being more gifted and able to recall events earlier than others.
  • Environmental factors: some researchers have suggested that traumatic or stressful events may contribute to childhood amnesia, as the adult may disassociate from some painful memories as a defense mechanism, or remember some particularly poignant events.
  • Genetic-evolutionary factors: these theories are still being researched and discussed.
infantile amnesia

When do the first stable memories appear?

As we have just mentioned, the first stable memories tend to appear around the age of 6.

Interestingly, although these memories are often of trivial events such as the first day of school or a birthday party, they have a crucial importance in marking the beginning of our autobiographical past.

Let us not forget that the way a person tells his or her story will also thoroughly influence his or her decisions and way of being in the future.

This phenomenon occurs at different ages based on individual and cultural factors, with some cultures reporting earlier or later childhood memories than others.

What influences memory so early?

Several factors influence memory during the early years of life.

Neurocognitive development, language skills and social interactions play a crucial role.

For example, language fully develops around age 2-3 years and makes events verbally accessible.

Social interaction and family narratives help consolidate memories.

In addition, cultural constructs and shared social practices influence the density and duration of memories.

How to help the child’s memories?

Family narrative practices have a great impact on children’s memories.

Parents who use an elaborative conversational style, adding information and encouraging the child to recount his or her experiences, tend to foster the development of richer and more detailed memories.

In contrast, a directive style, with closed questions and focusing on social roles, can reduce the quantity and quality of memories.

Encouraging the sharing of family stories and memories can therefore help children develop a more defined and richer sense of self.

If one of the parents dies early, do children remember it?

Children’s memory regarding early deceased parents depends on various factors, such as the child’s age at the time of death, level of interaction, and posthumous family narratives.

While very young children may not have direct memories, stories told by relatives and photographs can help keep the memory of the deceased parent alive.

Cultural and family practices of remembrance play a key role in preserving these memories.

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Alberini CM, Travaglia A. Infantile Amnesia: A Critical Period of Learning to Learn and Remember. J Neurosci. 2017 Jun 14;37(24):5783-5795. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0324-17.2017. PMID: 28615475; PMCID: PMC5473198

About the Author

Severino Cirillo

Health, Wellness and Education Expert. With a degree in Community Health, he is the CEO of Informed Parent and is responsible for validating the blog's scientific information and coordinating the editorial team of experts, consisting of gynecologists, midwives, psychotherapists, and others in pregnancy, perinatal, and parenting wellness and health.