Perhaps you wonder sometimes what your baby will remember from their first years of life. When they are older and look back, will they think they had a happy childhood? What can you do to give them fond memories?
Infants remember the time they spent in the womb. In the first weeks of life, they get agitated when they hear and recognize the sounds they learnt before birth, e.g. the music their mother often listened to or the voices of the people towards whom the mother has strong feelings. It is known that babies calm down listening to monotonous white noise. It happens because they remember it from the womb, when the flow of blood, breathing, bowel movements caused the same type of noise.
How far back can they remember?
It does not mean that they’ll keep these memories forever. Over the first few years of life, their memory takes shape. Even a three-month-old baby can tell apart objects they often see and a five- month-old remembers the image of their favourite toy for as long as two weeks. However, from day one of their life a child pays most attention to faces - they stare at them as if they wanted to imprint their memory with a depiction of mother, father, grandmother, or grandfather. With time, they learn to remember new faces. If a six-month-old baby sees a face for only a minute, they remember it for a week.
The things they can’t forget
Children best remember situations involving strong emotions. Infants are surprisingly good at recognizing the voice of a doctor they associate with an unpleasant procedure. If a child is undergoing a painful therapy, they may permanently associate its circumstances with pain and fear.
Who gave me strength?
Interestingly, even infants show a natural affinity to learning. Scientists discovered that the small children who focus on new things, such as faces or objects, later (in kindergarten and early school) score higher in intelligence tests.
However, other factors are at play here, not only the natural curiosity of a child. For example, the type of connection with the main carer (typically, the mother) is of great importance and has a big impact on the child’s future. The bond determines whether the child will have a feeling of self-esteem, if they’ll believe in themselves, and if they will be curious, interested in other people and the world around them, how they will build relationships. That first, most important relationship, which forms in the child’s first three years, is a model for their all other relationships. That bond models the child’s outlook on the world and people, and on themselves. It also determines how they will look back on their childhood.
Are my needs important?
Psychologists talk about three main types of attachment: secure, anxious-preoccupied, and dismissive-avoidant. The way the mother (or father; the most important person close to the child) reacts to the baby’s needs determines the attachment type between them. For example, what happens when the child is crying, afraid, spills juice on the carpet, kicks a brother, can’t sleep...
A close, safe type of attachment, one that is best for the child, develops if the mother notices and reacts to different situations. When the baby is crying, the mother comes to check why. If they need a hug, they are hugged. When they are cold, their mother covers them with a blanket. When hungry, she feeds them.
Sensitivity to the child’s needs and meeting those needs builds the foundations of secure attachment. And also acceptance, love, and understanding. When a child does something wrong (e.g. pulls a dog’s tail), the mother explains, all serious, that that’s bad behaviour. She does not shout, spank, or ignore. She reacts adequately to the situation and age, considering the fact that a small child might not understand what is good or bad.
What happens when mom flies off the handle?
Secure attachment requires respect. When a baby is eating their cereal and - after a few spoonfuls - closes their mouth, turns away, shakes their head, the parent respects the refusal, does not try to convince them to eat more, does not pretend that the spoon is an aeroplane.
If your son or daughter don’t want to be hugged by a practically unknown aunt, the mother does not force them, does not break their resistance, does not force anything. She is patient, calm and supports the child. Which does not mean that she has to be perfect. When she gets angry, she deals with her emotions, apologizes, explains and approaches the child again. Close attachment is not exclusive to people who are calm and infinitely patient. Those with a short fuse can also provide their children with the feeling of closeness and safety, they only need to understand their emotions, control them and try to explain the outbursts to their child.
What will my future be like?
Children who inherit the secure attachment type are usually interested in the world and cheerful, happy, open to other people. However, children who were ignored or neglected by their parents (the dismissive-avoidant style) find being happy difficult, often feel aversion or dislike. The anxious-preoccupied style appears when a child is afraid of their parent, is either drawn closer or pushed away (punished, ridiculed, left alone). Such a child may in the future find it difficult to understand their anger and often feel fear and shame.
It seems that the memories children keep and childhood’s influence on life do not depend on expensive clothes, beautiful room, or whether your baby starts learning a foreign language when they are one year old. The most important is to have someone who loves them, understands and fulfils their needs. Only that - or is it too much?