Here's what your baby actually remembers from the womb

Science shows that your baby remembers some interesting things.

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  • In an interview with The New York Times, author Ray Bradbury, known for his strong memory, said, "I have total recall. I remember being born. I remember being in the womb, I remember being inside. Coming out was great."

  • Bradbury's not the only one who claims to remember being in the womb. A quick search of the internet reveals videos of children sharing their prebirth memories and forum threads of adults' detailed embryonic memories. But how much of these memories of being in a "dark, wet place" can we take as an actual truth, and not a dream or concocted memory?

  • Prenatal memory

  • Because infants don't have the ability to communicate, researchers run into obvious challenges when trying to capture infant memories of life before birth. Sure, there are plenty of claims of memories of the womb, but these accounts are unprovable. And, at the end of the day, the fact that the majority of people don't remember the womb, casts doubt of the idea that anyone could remember it.

  • Because of this, many psychologists claim that it's impossible to remember the womb. Freud believed we forget our memories of the womb and infanthood because our adult selves want to suppress lusts and hatreds that babies have in the first years of life. On the other hand, many modern scientists believe we forget our early memories due to the rapid growth of brain cells and the finite capacity to store memories.

  • Even though there is logic attached to these theories, some experiments convincingly suggest that unborn babies really do have a capable memory and that it's powerful enough to hold onto memories after birth.

  • Your unborn baby can hear you

  • First of all, it's important to realize that your baby can hear you and she's listening to everything you say. (What else do they have to do in there anyway? Oh, yeah, grow into a functioning human.) In general, the inner part of the ear responsible for hearing - or cochlea - is mature enough to hear five weeks before birth.

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  • How well can a baby in your pregnant belly hear? Neuroscientist Eino Partanen said, "If you put your hand over your mouth and speak, that's very similar to the situation the fetus is in."

  • So, your unborn baby has a pretty good ability to hear what's going on outside. The question is, can she actually remember it after she's born?

  • Science suggests that yes, she can

  • Here's how scientists at the University of Helsinki went about discovering if babies could remember life before they were born: The researchers asked a group of mothers-to-be to periodically play a track with the nonsense word, "tatata." They also had a control group who played nothing to their babies in embryo. After the babies from both groups were born, they tested the babies' brain activity in response to the word. The first group of babies - those who heard the word "tatata" while in their mothers' wombs - registered brain activity when they heard that word. The group that wasn't exposed to "tatata" registered no brain activity when they heard the word.

  • This experiment indicates that a baby's memory lasts beyond the womb and many experiments have been done with similar results. Pregnant mothers reading Dr. Seuss to their bellies found that once born, the babies responded more to the sound of Dr. Seuss than other books. Likewise, studies have shown that infants have a higher response to songs heard in utero than unfamiliar songs.

  • All of this suggests that while a baby might not be able to understand the meaning of the things he or she hears (because they haven't yet developed language skills), the baby does have a memory of the womb.

  • When does memory form?

  • So why do people say that kids can't remember anything before age 3? Well, it's simply a simplistic way of looking at memory. It's at about age 3 that a child's language skills dramatically improve, changing the way parents communicate with their children. These conversations affect how a child frames his or her memories. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Ulric Neisser, a psychologist at Emory University, said, "At around 3 or 4, you find mothers talking a lot about past events to a kid. Then a kid starts to value her memories and starts to tell stories about herself. The events you can easily remember as an adult are those you had, back then, put into a narrative, at least in your own mind."

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  • In other words, psychologists hypothesize that it's at about age 3, a child's memories become more adult-like, simply because of a child's ability to catalog and frame memories with language.

  • How is your little one experiencing memory?

  • However, there are other forms of memory that take center stage for young children. So before your child is able to form memories with language, he or she is probably retaining memory in these two ways:

    • Generic memory: This is a memory of general attributes of a familiar situation. It's more unconscious than specific. For example, remembering the color of an old backpack, the layout of a childhood home or what candy grandma kept in her pockets.

    • Episodic memory: This refers to a specific event, like going on a family vacation, doing something thrilling or learning to snorkel.

  • At any rate, even generic memories play a huge role in who your child becomes. At the youngest age, memories become the building blocks of their future person. Neisser also referenced Alfred Adler, one of Freud's early adherents, saying: "Adler claimed that in our earliest memory can be read the key themes and conflicts of our lives." In other words, it's important to build who your child becomes by crafting memories that shape who they become.

  • Fill their memories with experiences with other cultures, with love and learning. Never worry that they're "too young to remember it anyway," because, as you can see, the opposite is true.

  • For example, take your kids on a family vacation to the Xel-Há adventure park. Not only will the time they spend with you create foundational memories, but the time they spend exploring another culture, swimming through schools of fish, biking through jungle paths in an environment where you feel safe will allow your kids to create memories that will help them grow and develop into an amazing person.

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Melinda Fox has a bachelor's degree in English and is a member of the FamilyShare content team. She loves Shakespeare, listening to her favorite songs on repeat and journaling.

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