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What age do kids start remembering?

Parents often wonder when their child will begin forming lasting memories. While infants and toddlers live very much in the present moment, at some point in early childhood, kids start to retain memories that will stick with them into adulthood. Understanding when long-term memory kicks in can help parents appreciate their child’s perspective and development.

When do babies start remembering things?

Babies begin soaking up information and experiences right from birth. Their early months and years are a time of rapid brain development as they start to learn about the world around them. However, babies’ and young toddlers’ memories tend to be fleeting. They live very much in the present moment.

While babies recognize familiar faces and objects from an early age, researchers believe most infants cannot form memories that will persist long-term until around age 2 or 3. However, some key events may leave impressions earlier:

  • Newborns retain some memory of sounds and tastes from the womb.
  • Studies show babies as young as 6 months may remember small details for up to 2 weeks.
  • By 9 months, infants can recall learned behaviors for up to 1 month.
  • In a landmark study, some 2-year-olds remembered getting a rectal temperature taken at 18 months.

So while fragmented memories may start emerging earlier, most experts agree kids do not develop lasting recollection until toddlerhood.

When do toddlers start forming real memories?

The ability to create enduring memories undergoes a rapid development from age 2 to 5. During this time, toddlers transition from relying on familiar routines and parents to guide them to actively recalling past experiences.

Research into early memory development suggests:

  • 2-year-olds remember some details if reminded by parents.
  • By 3 years, toddlers recall key elements of recent events unaided.
  • 3- to 4-year-olds remember trips, injuries, family weddings, etc. for years.
  • Around age 4, children discuss memories in greater detail.
  • 5-year-olds have memories comparable to older children and adults.

In one study tracking childhood amnesia, kids ages 3 to 7 were asked over several years about their earliest memory. The average age of earliest memory was:

Age Average age of earliest memory
3 years 2.5 years
4 years 2.75 years
5 years 3.25 years
6 years 3.50 years
7 years 3.75 years

These results show that by age 4, most kids have formed lasting memories that persist years later.

Why can’t babies form long-term memories?

The delayed development of autobiographical memory in the first few years has to do with brain maturation. Important memory-related brain regions like the limbic system, frontal lobes, and hippocampus take several years to develop their adult capabilities.

Specifically, researchers believe long-term memory relies on the maturation of the hippocampus. This brain structure begins forming memories around age 2 or 3. Before then, the hippocampus cannot store memories for the long haul.

The lack of language also hinders lasting memory in babies and toddlers. As kids acquire skills like object permanence, cause-and-effect, and language, they become better equipped to encode, store, and retrieve memories.

When do traumatic memories start?

Stress and trauma can create powerful memories earlier than typical developmental timelines. Young children may recall traumatic events from as early as 1 to 2 years of age, even if they lack conscious memories of normal events until age 3 or 4.

Examples of early traumatic memories include:

  • Hospitalizations
  • Injuries
  • Surgery
  • Abuse
  • Impaired parenting
  • Accidents
  • Disasters
  • Violence

These threatening experiences can trigger a strong release of stress hormones that appear to influence the hippocampus and amygdala to encode emotionally charged memories.

Repressed memories

Some theorists believe the brain may subconsciously suppress traumatic memories as a coping mechanism. Repressed or recovered memories are controversial, and experts disagree on whether adults can recall memories from as early as infancy.

However, most agree children are capable of forgetting consciously accessible memories, especially if the trauma occurs prior to age 3 or 4 when lasting recollection typically starts. Forgotten abuse that allegedly resurfaces later in adulthood is difficult to verify or study scientifically.

Ways parents can help build memories

While long-term memory develops gradually in early childhood, parents can engage in activities to exercise their child’s memory skills:

  • Looking at family photos – Narrate and discuss memories linked to the images.
  • Reading books repeatedly – Kids learn to connect memories to the story.
  • Talking through routines – Describe ongoing activities like brushing teeth.
  • Playing memory games – Use matching card games and “I spy” to hone skills.
  • Relating new events to past ones – Help make connections to similar experiences.

Parents should also avoid expecting young toddlers to recall events reliably. Frustration over a 2-year-old not remembering something is developmentally inappropriate. With time and repeated exposure, however, lasting memory will start to coalesce.

How memory changes from childhood to adulthood

Memory abilities continue progressing throughout childhood into adolescence and early adulthood. Key developments include:

Preschool memory improvements

From 3 to 5 years, memories become more detailed and reliable. Kids recall more context and temporal order of events. Their memories also become less self-centered, including more people and environments.

School-age memory strategies

Elementary schoolers intentionally apply memory strategies like rehearsal and visualization. Their memories improve in accuracy when recalling lists, instructions, etc. But memory glitches also increase as kids remember more complex material.

Teenager memory declines

Contrary to popular belief, memory shows a temporary decline in teens. Making risky choices, managing stress, and coping with complex schoolwork can all impact memory capabilities. But skills rebound by the end of adolescence.

Young adult memory peaks

Most cognitive abilities peak in our 20s and 30s before slowly declining. Healthy adults process information quickly, use effective memory strategies, and excel at recognizing, recalling, and reconstructing memories of life events.

Understanding the trajectory of memory from infancy to adulthood can empower parents to support their child’s development. While babies live in the moment, lasting memory emerges around toddlerhood to open up a world of learning, connection, and personal identity.


In summary, children start forming enduring autobiographical memories around 2 to 4 years of age. Prior to this, infants and toddlers have limited recollection of past events and experiences. Traumatic events may be remembered earlier than typical timelines. By kindergarten, children develop detailed memory capabilities that continue to improve into adulthood even as gradual cognitive decline eventually sets in during our elder years.