Childhood Amnesia: Why Don’t We Remember Our Early Years?

6 April, 2021
This article has been written and endorsed by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana
Infantile amnesia is the term used to designate the fact of not being able to remember the first years of our life. But why does it appear? Is it true that there are people who have memories of babies?

Have you ever wondered why you don’t remember the first years of your life? What’s the “first” memory you have of your childhood? Childhood amnesia has to do with all this.

We adults experience this type of amnesia when we try to evoke memories of when we were two or three years old. Don’t you find it difficult? There’s an explanation for this (more than one in fact), and, in this article, we’re going to talk about them.

Childhood amnesia – what is it?

Childhood amnesia is defined as the common inability in adults to remember the early years of their childhood. This type of amnesia, in general, encompasses events from birth to three or four years of age.

The average age of our first memories is 3 years and 4 months. However, some people can remember experiences that happened when they were younger than this.

We’re talking about episodic memory, which is involved in autobiographical events (experiences lived out, places, associated emotions, contextual factors etc.), which can be explicitly evoked.

We’re not talking about other types of memory, such as procedural memory which is related to learning skills, such as riding a bicycle.

When does childhood amnesia appear?

Paradoxically, although it has always been said that childhood amnesia appears in adults, as stated by West et al. (1999) in one of their investigations, it may actually appear much earlier. Some research indicates that, at seven years of age, a child may already be aware that they don’t remember the first years of their life.

This is confirmed by investigations by Bauer and Larkina carried out in 2014. In these investigations, it was also observed that younger children can have even more memories, although these were less clear and detailed.

In contrast, the elderly were able to evoke phenomena and events more extensively and clearly despite not remembering their first years of life.

Why don’t we remember our early years?

Childhood amnesia isn't bad.
Brain development at this age isn’t able to form well-structured memories.

But why don’t we remember our first years of our lives? There are different hypotheses that have tried to answer this question.

When we’re little, the brain is developing very fast. In fact, during the first two years of life, the brain creates so many new connections that it has more connections then than at any time in its life.

However, the brain needs to be “pruned” in order to function properly, which means shedding certain connections. In this process, during the first years of life, the brain loses memories. Language could, in these cases, help the memories to be fixed, but as language still doesn’t exist, this isn’t possible.

Other hypotheses suggest that we can’t remember things that involve a particular concept until we understand what that concept is. As a result of this brain immaturity, childhood amnesia could appear. But there’s more:

The influence of what we know

In this sense, the concepts that we’ve been clear about since childhood (and those we haven’t) can also influence childhood amnesia. But how?

Let’s take an example in order to understand it better. Let’s imagine the memory of falling off a bicycle, which occurred at a very young age. As Loveday states, we know that children don’t incorporate concepts such as dislike before they’re 5 years old, and that people don’t keep memories linked to the concept of dislike until after this age.

So, this would be another possible explanation for childhood amnesia. As we saw in the example, and as the experts suggest, we can’t encode a memory before having a linguistic concept for the event that took place. This shows the relationship between memory and language.

Immaturity of the hippocampus

Another explanation related to childhood amnesia is the immaturity of the hippocampus at a very young age. The hippocampus is a key brain structure, which allows us to encode and store episodic memory.

So, what’s this structure got to do with it? It shows that the hippocampus is still immature in childhood. This would explain the fact that the brain isn’t yet mature enough to store these kinds of childhood memories.

False memories

What sometimes happens is that we form a mental image of certain things that people tell us we’ve experienced, such as, for example, the image of a car. Gradually, our mind transforms that image into something that we experience as if it were in our memory.

As we can see, the information that others give us can lead us to make false memories.

It may also happen that we have a vague memory of something and the “new” contributions of others lead us to modify or enrich that memory with new details that didn’t really exist. This is one of the traps of memory.

Unconscious memories

This doesn’t mean that people who claim to remember events like their birth or other experiences early in life are lying. In their head, that memory exists, although, in reality, it’s a manufactured memory, which never really existed in their brain.

“We all do it because we’re building memories with the pieces we have available, and sometimes those pieces get messed up.”

-Martin Conway-

Babies can create memories

Infantile amnesia doesn't require treatment.
For some people, it can be very difficult to evoke childhood memories.

However, beyond fictitious memory, some experts claim that babies do have the ability to generate memories. What happens is that they quickly forget them later.

On the other hand, at an autobiographical level, five-year-olds can identify and remember a situation they experienced when they were two. Thus, in childhood amnesia, it isn’t so much that children under the age of three have no memory, but rather that they’re unable to remember what happens to them.

These are memories that end up volatilizing over time. That’s why we speak of true amnesia, because it isn’t the case that memories don’t exist, but rather that they fade over time.

Our first memories

As we’ve seen, childhood amnesia is what would explain why we don’t remember the first years of our lives. This period encompasses the events that occur from birth until we’re three or four years old.

We don’t remember those early years because, in childhood, the brain wasn’t yet ready to store that type of episodic memory. It’s also related to the absence of language, as, if we don’t have the concept to designate an experience, then it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to store it, and much less evoke it.

“We are all the pieces of what we remember. We have within us the hopes and fears of those who love us. As long as there is love and memory, there is no real loss.”

-Cassandra Clare-

  • Bauer, P. J. & Larkina, M. (2014). The onset of childhood amnesia in childhood: A prospective investigation of the course and determinants of forgetting of early-life events. Memory.
  • Billig, M. y Edwards, D. (1994): La construcción social de la memoria. Mundo Científico, 150(14): 814-817.
  • Diges, M. y Perpiñá, C. (1994): Psicopatología de la Memoria. En A. Belloch, F. Ramos y B. Sandín (Comps.): Manual de Psicopatología. Vol. I.
  • Usher, J; Neisser U (1993). «Childhood Amnesia and the Beginnings of Memory for Four Early Life Events». Journal of Experimental Psychology, 122: 155-165. 
  • West, T; Bauer P (1999). «Assumptions of Infantile Amnesia: Are There Differences Between Early and Later Memories?». Memory, 7(3): 257-278.