“Adoption—Infants remember more than you think”

“Parents who worry about early traumatic experiences in their adopted child’s life may be comforted knowing that children younger than nine months are poor at retaining ‘explicit’ conscious memories. However, even though a child can’t recall a particular event, a favorite toy, or a trip to the zoo later in life, those experiences may still be crucial to the child’s development. A child might not remember their diapered days, but ‘implicit’ memories formed in the early formative years may actually be the ones with the greatest impact on their lives.” —Judith Land

adoption detective | Judith Land | memory

During the early years children learn “implicitly” based on tacit emotions evoked by specific situations. As we begin to mature, we gradually learn to develop “explicit” memories through the interpretation of facts, uncensored details and abstract concepts. Realization of the truth about the sum of who we really are goes far beyond the intellectually explicit conscious memories of life’s experience. —Judith Land

A child’s memories are based on emotional responses and feelings that are strong right from birth. Emotions create powerful memories that the brain actually remembers long after the occurrences themselves. Infants spend the first few years of life developing an emotional understanding of the world—feelings and interpretations that remain with us throughout our entire lives. That’s why early childhood has such a powerful effect on us, even though we consciously remember very little of it.

Infants as young as six months old implicitly remember emotionally stressful situations and are able to anticipate that negativity when exposed to the same situation again. Stress hormones increase when parents ignore their child until the child is reassured the situation won’t repeat itself. The links between emotion, stress, and memory have led scientists to believe that traumatic childhood events may trigger memories that are remembered more vividly and retained longer than routine experiences. Adult social behaviors, resistance to stress, and language skills are influenced by what happens during the early stages of life. These findings explain why adoptees who experienced isolation and neglect as infants, even when they can’t remember specific situations, still need the help of a therapist or counselor to address social and emotional stress and anxiety as adults.

Scientists who study memory support the idea that the brains of infants are set up to learn quickly and make rapid associations. Babies are much more sophisticated than many people realize. Memory begins early on, even before a child is even born. Babies who are played the same nursery tune regularly during pregnancy can recognize and remember the song at birth. They form memories that last for incredibly long periods of time. Newborns recognize their mothers’ voice at birth and are quickly reassured by her smell. They quickly learn the mother’s face and recognize the father, if he has been present during pregnancy. In the first two months babies recognize familiar faces and voices they will remember through seven months of age. This kind of recognition is the first indication of memory that increases dramatically during the first year. At 3 months, babies can remember new pictures and toys shown to them six days previously, offering proof that babies this age have recall memory. At 6 months they continue to remember how some toys work through their second birthdays. At about eight months babies learn to recall people who are familiar and develop anxieties toward strangers. At 9 months old, babies are able to remember where toys are stored and imitate actions they have witnessed. Missing the mother is a vital sign that the child has a clear memory of her just being there, and creating alarm when she isn’t visible. Toddlers continue to prefer smells they were exposed to in the first weeks of life. Long-lasting conscious memory of specific events develops in stages and begins when a baby is about 18 months old. First, they encode primitive sights and sounds. Then comes the accumulation of general knowledge and language. The final kinds of memories are autobiographical recollections of personal experiences.

Ten things about memory that parents of adopted children should know: 1) Memories provide the building blocks for learning. 2) Children of highly elaborative mothers tend to have earlier and richer memories. 3) Parents expressing positive emotions heighten a baby’s attention and arousal much more than someone with a placid facial expression and neutral voice. 4) Children remember far more and at earlier ages than previously thought. 5) Many memories last a lifetime. 6) Memories don’t always remain constant. 7) Emotional responses to stress tend to be remembered longer. 8) Spiritual memories linger long after our conscious powers of recall. 9) Implicit memories formed in the early formative years based on our emotional responses to stress may actually be the ones with the greatest impact on our lives. 10) Realization of the truth about the sum of who we really are as adoptees goes far beyond the intellectually explicit conscious memories of life’s experience.

Judith Land





About Judith Land

Judith Land lives in Colorado and Arizona with husband and coauthor Martin Land. Judith is a former nurse, retail shop owner, college instructor and avid outdoor person. Her book "Adoption Detective: Memoir of an Adopted Child" is a true story detailing the journey of Judith Romano, foster child and adoptee, as she discovers fragments of her background, and then sets out to solve the mystery as an adult. She has reached readers in 192 countries. "Mothers and fathers everywhere in the world need to understand that children are forever and always." --Judith Land
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8 Responses to “Adoption—Infants remember more than you think”

  1. Lesley Earl says:

    I have always struggled with being woken up..I react poorly to this when it happens…(with anger). Now at 62 I finely suspect that I was always woken up from naps to facilitate the hand over to a new and different family. This happened 5 times (the different families part). From birth to 19 months age

    • Judith Land says:

      Lesley, Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the heartbreaking story of your mysteriously altered life’s trajectory. It must have been very hurtful and distressing to have been constantly uprooted. I feel the pain of a child refugee—disconnected and separated from your roots though no fault of your own, a displaced person by definition, alienated and surrounded with emptiness. Implicit memories formed in the early formative years of childhood based on our emotional responses to traumatic and stressful situations are the ones with the greatest impact on our lives, even though we may not have a clear understanding, realistic vision or explicit conscious memory of those events. When our true self-identity vanishes we can only hope to comprehend with empowered insight a surreal vision from God that empirically solves the riddles of the labyrinth and the reasons for our birth.

  2. I was in foster care from birth to 3.5 months and given the name Cynthia by my birth mother. Of course the foster parents called me by the name my mother gave me before she left me at the hospital. I was renamed Kristine by the adopters. Recently found out that I called all my dolls ‘Cynthia”. Allegedly my adopted parents never knew my birth name. I found out my birth name in 1997. My adopted Aunty (adopted mother’s sister) told me i used to call all my dolls “Cynthia”. You can imagine my surprise! I believe that i remembered the name i was called from birth to over 3 months. I believe babies remember lots more than we give them credit for. I know it. I could have picked any name at all but I chose my own name. It’s gotta be that I remember hearing it because only my birth mother, foster family and CAS would have known it. It kinda also breaks my heart because if I knew my name, I believe, I also knew I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. My adopted mother said I was an angry baby. No. Just a baby that felt scared and abandon and didn’t recognize voices and smells and no familiarity. Alas, my adopted mother and I never connected and I left her at 13 and went to adopted dad and was out of there @ 16. My adopted dad said that he and I will never get along because I don’t have his blood in me!!!! Appalling. I wish I had met my BM (died in 1996) and I wish I could find my birth father. Wish that adoption didn’t affect me at all. Disenfranchised grief, PTSD, abandonment issues, don’t belong anywhere. Have four kids and sometimes I feel totally inadequate because I didn’t have proper parenting role models and I always struggle with where i fit. Wish I could just suck it all up and get on with it but adoption is so insidious and pervasive. Thanks for listening.

    • Judith Land says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. I had a similar experience. My adoptive parents were good to me overall, but I had a similar experience with my foster family and the naming of dolls. I was given two dolls by my adoptive mother. I named them Barbara and Mary—the names of my foster sisters that I obviously remembered and missed very much. I would talk to the dolls but not to my mother. The mystery of why I picked those two names was solved when I finally met Barbara and Mary in person thirty years later while conducting an adoption search to discover the identity of my foster family. I wanted to reach out and say thank you for taking care of me in the first formative months. They fondly remembered me. Barbara was still carrying a black and white photograph of me as a baby in her wallet after all those years, hoping we would have a chance to meet again. It was a miracle that I was able to find them because I was the product of a closed adoption with falsified records. They also had a little white dog when I was an infant, and I have a little white dog today. I have never questioned the origin of the names I assigned to my dolls and why they were so important to me.

  3. I was adopted by 2 loving parents who spoiled me and showered me with love but when I started my own family all these hidden issues came to the surface, I began to talking to stray women when I wasnt supposed to, in curiosity and looking for acceptance. I also started to get heavy into drugs and alcohol until at 33 I finally decided to locate my birth mother, which I did, it began very good but now for some reason has fizzled away on her end. I dont mind this as I believe finding out what was so unknown to me my whole life healed me in so many ways. This article brings up a fear I had of being abandoned which I sometimes feels more like a memory, possibly those few days I was being transferred from one family to another.

  4. Simon Olley says:

    Thanks you for this article.

    I was adopted at a bit less than a year old and was very anxious as a child, especially going to visit other peoples’ houses (even just for a play and tea), I was anxious at primary school too. However, my adopted parents did as much as they could for me, though there was very little physical closeness – I can only remember my adopted mother hugging me once, when my tortoise died!

    I’ve been lucky to have found a wonderful wife and have two beautiful daughters (grown up now) and we are very close. I still suffer from worry and anxiety/tearfulness sometimes and have recently started to think of it as something a little bit like Post Traumatic Stress (though obviously nothing like the poor soldiers suffer). I think the wrench of taking babies from their mothers can cause anxiety which continues all through life.

  5. Pingback: Adoption—How does it feel? | Adoption Detective: Memoir of an Adopted Child

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