What a memory!

Rules, vocabulary, nursery rhymes, Daddy’s face, giggle fits with Mom... Your kid needs a good memory to remember all that!


Memories in training

Memory develops as the brain matures. As your child grows, so does their ability to retain information.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Memory develops as the brain matures. As your child grows, so does their ability to retain information.

A baby’s memory begins to develop even before birth. Sounds and other stimuli experienced within the womb leave an impression on their brain. “Those impressions allow babies to distinguish between what’s familiar and what’s new,” explains neuropsychologist Sarah Lippé, a professor at the Université de Montréal who studies the brain mechanisms involved in children’s learning. “It’s how they’re able to recognize their parents’ voices from the moment they’re born.”

It’s also why a baby can recognize their mother’s smell or show signs they’re familiar with a nursery rhyme they often heard during the last trimester of pregnancy.

Thanks to recognition memory, babies can retain information for a certain amount of time. Researchers have demonstrated this through a simple experiment that involves tying a ribbon from a baby’s ankle to a mobile. Anytime the baby kicks, the mobile moves. On average, a 2-month-old remembers the game for three days, while a 6-month-old still remembers it after two weeks. At 20 months, a child can generally remember a series of actions associated with an object for up to a year.

Different memory, different function

Humans don’t have just one type of memory: we have several types, and each has its own function.

Sensory memory

Sensory memory processes the information we receive through our senses. Sensory memory begins to form before birth, as it doesn’t require words. Two-year-old Adam listens to a lot of music with his family. “He started humming at 16 months,” says Clériston, his dad. “He doesn’t sing the words, but as soon as he hears the first note of certain songs, he starts humming.” It’s mainly through sensory memory that children are able to retain sounds for a few seconds, then eventually learn all the notes in a song.

Procedural memory

Procedural memory also appears very early on. This type of memory includes learning to perform a set of tasks, such as those needed for walking, using a spoon, riding a bike, tying shoelaces, or swimming. Once your child learns these skills, they can do them automatically, without any conscious effort.

Semantic memory

Semantic memory is what enables your child to accumulate knowledge through experience. You can think of it as an infinitely expanding database that helps them retain colours, smells, the meaning of words, numbers, how things look and work, important dates, and so on.

Episodic memory

When your child tells you what they ate for lunch or talks about when they went to a friend’s birthday party, they’re using their episodic memory. “Episodic memory lets us remember detailed information about past experiences,” explains Marion Noulhiane, a neuroscience researcher at the NeuroSpin research centre and a professor at Université Paris Descartes in France. This type of memory isn’t well developed before a child turns 2; it matures primarily between the ages of 2 and 7, with peak development in the final two years of that period.

But since their brains are still maturing, young children tend to forget recent events, sometimes even things they did earlier in the day. “That’s why daycare educators regularly go over the day’s activities with their group,” Lippé says. “At lunchtime, for example, they might ask the kids which park they went to and what game they played. They then repeat the same questions at snack time. These reminders help the children remember what they did so they can tell their parents about it.”

Short-term and long-term memory
All types of memory can be either short-term or long-term. Short-term memory only retains information for a few seconds. If the information is repeated or a child consciously tries to remember it, it then gets stored in long-term memory. We can hold on to long-term memories for a few days, a few months, or our whole lives.

Memory training

Memory develops naturally, but there are ways to help your child improve theirs. For example, you can train their visual memory with games that involve flipping over cards to find matching pairs.

“Our other senses also play an important role in memory development,” explains Professor Geneviève Cadoret, a member of the Qualité des contextes éducatifs de la petite enfance research group at UQAM. In addition to visual memories, we have memories of sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. “They’re all complementary, so when combined, they help kids better conceptualize and understand their surroundings. Using all their senses, they’re able to associate things such as Dad’s voice with his face, an animal with the sound it makes, and flavours with different foods.”

Here are a few examples of games that stimulate memory through the senses:

  • Feeling objects placed in a bag and guessing what they are
  • Naming different scents while blindfolded
  • Matching sounds with images (e.g., the sound of an engine with a picture of a truck, meowing with a picture of a cat)
  • Learning nursery rhymes and simple dances
Does having a good memory mean a child will be good at school?
Children with a good working memory are more likely to do well in school. This type of memory involves retaining and mentally manipulating information in order to perform a task. Among other things, it requires the ability to stay focused and to follow and remember instructions.

Childhood memories

You want your child to have fond memories of their early years. But what makes some memories stick and others fade?

You want your child to have fond memories of their early years. But what makes some memories stick and others fade?

Luiza, aged 5, visited her mom’s family in Morocco when she was 3. She spent only a few hours with her grandpa, but she remembers what she did with him. “She tells us that he gave her candy and cookies, and that they played a game together,” says Maria, Luiza’s mother.

Luiza also remembers getting bumped into on a school bus two years ago, much to her mother’s surprise. “She’s forgotten all about the day camp she went to, but she still talks to us about what happened on the bus,” Maria says.

When your child experiences something unusual or something that provokes a strong emotion, they often remember it for longer. That was the case with Luiza, and with 4-year-old Émile, who saw a pirate show a year ago. “He got really excited and hasn’t stopped talking about it since,” says Elizabeth, his mom.

But what’s memorable for you isn’t necessarily memorable for your child—for instance, the birth of a little brother or sister. “Parents assume their child will remember something so momentous,” notes Geneviève Cadoret, a professor at UQAM and a memory researcher. “But that’s not always the case. For a kid, a special trip to the park might be more memorable!”

Sometimes, a child will forget almost everything about an activity except for a seemingly unimportant detail. For example, Émile went to the museum with his parents when he was 2. “On the way out, we saw a dog, and that’s what he talked about for the next few days,” laughs his mother.

Of course, children are more likely to remember what interests them. But if they retain little detail about an activity, it’s also because their brain is still developing, explains Sarah Lippé, a neuropsychologist and professor at the Université de Montréal. “To fully grasp what’s going on, you need to process a bunch of information at once. That’s still difficult for a young brain,” she says.

What is infantile amnesia?

Most adults can trace their earliest childhood memories back to age 3 or 4. Almost everything that happened before then is forgotten. This is called infantile amnesia. At around 8 months old, babies are able to remember a few things. But by the time they grow up, they’ll have forgotten their first birthday party and everything that happened before age 2. The personal memories formed in the first two years of life fade quickly. There won’t be much left of the third year either.

Children need to forget some of their memories in order to learn new things.

Researchers are beginning to understand why this happens, although there’s still a lot to learn. In children under 2, the hippocampus region of the brain is not yet mature enough to do its job of storing and retrieving memories. The brain also spends time reorganizing neurons to become more efficient.

“The new neurons accommodate the many new things a child learns at that age,” explains Marion Noulhiane, a neuroscience researcher at the NeuroSpin research centre in France. “To make room for what needs to be learned, the brain has to eliminate what is no longer useful. That’s why memories disappear.”

Infantile amnesia is also caused in part by a young child’s poor command of language. Talking about an event helps you remember it. A child who hasn’t yet mastered language isn’t capable of recounting their memories.

Can a child’s experiences affect them later in life, even if they’ve forgotten what happened? Quite possibly. “If a child is mistreated, certain areas of the brain may retain traces of the emotions the child felt,” says Noulhiane. “Even if they don’t remember what happened, the experience can impact their personality and behaviour.”

Helping your child remember

Elizabeth often talks to her son Émile about the good times they’ve shared. This is worth doing, because even if you can’t choose what your child will remember, you do have an influence.

When children sleep well, it’s easier for them to retain what they’ve learned.

Regularly talking with your child about the things you’ve done together and encouraging them to describe what they saw and felt helps them relive their experiences in their head and structure their story better. They’ll then be more likely to remember things for longer, according to Cadoret. This is more effective than just asking your child about the details of what happened. It will also help them improve their language skills.

However, it’s also possible for children to have false memories. “It’s difficult to distinguish between an event you experienced at age 2 and an event you’ve only seen photos of,” says Noulhiane.

Things to keep in mind
  • As your child gets older, their memory improves.
  • The memory that enables us to recall past events (episodic memory) takes longer to develop than other forms of memory.
  • Mastering language helps us form memories.
Naître et grandir

Source:Naître et grandir magazine, October 2017
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Cindy Beaudoin, neuropsychologist and senior research consultant, ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Laboratory, Université de Montréal and CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre

Updated: October 2023

Photos: GettyImages/Freemixer, Maxim Morin, and GettyImages/Sidekick



Books for parents

  • Soprano, Ana María, and Juan Narbona. La mémoire de l’enfant. Masson, 2009, 216 pp.
  • Kaddouch, Robert, and Marion Noulhiane. L’enfant, la musique et la mémoire. De Boeck Supérieur, 2013, 96 pp.

Other reference

  • Bouyeure, Antoine, and Marion Noulhiane. “Memory: Normative development of memory systems.” Handbook of Clinical Neurology, vol. 173, 2020, pp. 201–213.