By Talaris Institute
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Photo of baby and mother

For decades, scientists didn’t think babies could remember much. Although parents and caregivers suspected that more was going on inside their young children’s heads, many ‘experts’ thought babies experienced the world as simply a blur of sights, sounds, smells and textures. They were wrong.

Parents and caregivers were right all along. Babies can remember a lot. And they can remember some things for a surprisingly long time.

Short fingers and long memories

How can we learn what babies remember? Since babies can’t answer scientists’ questions directly, researchers have had to develop clever ways to learn how long babies can remember things. One type of experiment uses deferred imitation to see how long babies remember how to do things. Deferred imitation is based on two main ideas:  

  1. Babies will imitate what they see people do
  2. Babies can remember what they see and copy it at a later time.

For example, researchers might begin by showing babies how to do something new – like how to use a toy they’ve never seen before in a special way. After demonstrating a unique way to play with the toy, the researcher removes the toy from the room so that the babies can’t practise or experiment with it (parents can’t watch either – no ‘coaching’ is allowed). After some time passes, the researcher will give the unusual toy to the babies to see what they will do. If the babies play with the toy in the unique way they saw demonstrated earlier by the adult, the researcher knows that the babies remembered and copied what they were shown.

How long can babies remember what they are shown?

In one series of experiments, researchers wanted to learn if 12-month-old babies could remember what they were shown after delays of three minutes, one week, or four weeks. Researchers first showed groups of babies five different toys and a unique way to play with each of them, like pulling apart a dumbbell-shaped toy or making a ‘stirring motion’ with a wooden stick inside a box. After showing these babies unique ways to play with the toys (for only 20 seconds for each toy), the researchers removed the toys from the room. The researchers also made sure that the parents never saw what the babies were shown, so the babies couldn't practise at home.

Other groups of babies in the experiment were shown different things. Some babies watched adults do different interesting things with the five toys, and other babies never saw any of the five toys. Later, the researchers placed these toys one at a time in front of the babies to see what they would do.

The researchers in this study did three separate experiments, which are combined and summarised here.

  • After a three minute delay, the babies remembered about 3.5 (about 70%) of the special ways to play with the five toys.
  • After one week, the babies remembered more than 2.5 (over 50%) of the special ways to play with the five toys. 
  • After four weeks, the babies remembered about 2.5 (about 50%) of the special ways to play with the five toys.

Groups of babies that were not shown the special ways to play with the toys still figured out a few of these ways on their own. Overall, these babies did about 1.5 (about 30%) of the five special ways to play with the toys.

Even after four weeks, 12-month-old babies could remember and copy about half of the things they were shown – and they saw each unique action for only 20 seconds! Also, this study doesn’t suggest that babies can remember and copy what they see for only four weeks, but for at least four weeks. They may remember what they were shown even longer.

Helpful parenting tips

  • Babies learn by watching and copying people – and they’re very good at it. They can watch an adult do something just a few times, for only 20 seconds, and remember how to do it four weeks later.
  • Show babies positive examples to imitate and remember such as giving hugs, treating others well and playing with toys in fun new ways. 
  • Remember that babies don’t know the difference between what is safe and what is dangerous. They are watching everything we do, including things like working with sharp tools and using poisonous cleaning supplies. 
  • Celebrate your baby’s growing memory when they remember how to do things.
  • Enjoy the wonderful learning abilities of children and remember that babies might copy any model they see. If you are entrusted with the care and nurture of children, think of ways to fill their lives with healthy, safe examples to copy.