“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
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.