When do babies start remembering faces and things?

Mom and  baby video chatting with a grand mother
Photo credit: / NoSystem images

Do babies have memories? Yes, but they don't work the way adult memories do.

Babies have mainly short-term memories that last for just a few minutes. By 4 months old, your baby can remember that your face has disappeared when you play peek-a-boo, or that a ball has rolled out of sight. Short-term memory helps babies track objects. But researchers have found that 4- to 6-month-old babies can only remember one thing at a time.

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Your baby's memory expands quickly in their first year of life. One study found that 6-month-olds could remember how to press a lever to operate a toy train for two to three weeks after they last saw the toy.

By 10 months, a baby's short-term memory has improved so much that they can remember a few things at once, but still only for short periods of time. (Researchers think that limits on short-term memory may help babies avoid getting overwhelmed by the great, big world they're encountering.)

Long-term memories take an extra few years to develop. The hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories form, isn't fully developed until around age 7. This may be why our earliest memories aren't usually from our first few years of life. The absence of early childhood memories is a phenomenon researchers call "childhood amnesia."

When do babies recognize familiar faces?

A newborn's vision is pretty fuzzy, but they can start to recognize faces much faster than other objects. Your baby will be able to identify your face by the time they're 3 months old, but they can pick you out of a crowd much earlier using their other senses.

Newborns recognize their mom's voice at birth because they heard it in the womb. They'll start to recognize the voices of their other parent and siblings soon after that.

When do babies start remembering faces of relatives and friends outside of the household? The degree of exposure matters.

If your child sees their grandparents once a week, they'll probably recognize them by the time they're 6 to 9 month old. But if they see them daily, it may happen sooner. You'll know whose faces are familiar to your baby because they'll smile and coo when they see people they recognize.

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If your child's grandparents or other special family members live far away and frequent visits aren't possible, it may take a year or two for your little one to really remember them. You can make this process easier for your baby by video chatting with family members regularly.

You can also use social media sites to share photos and updates, and look at them with your baby while you talk about who's on the screen and the things you've done with them. Or consider making a small photo album of favorite people for your baby to page through.

How long can a baby remember a person?

Babies remember faces relatively well. They can recall faces for a surprisingly long time, and not just those of family members.

In one study, 3-year-olds were shown pictures of two faces – a person they had met once two years earlier, and a stranger. The children stared at the stranger's face for longer, an example of what researchers call "novelty preference," or the tendency to focus on new things. This suggests the 3-year-olds recognized the person they'd met before.

Still, babies need to see people frequently to remember them. (They can remember for just a few minutes in the early months, and for a few weeks by age 1.) That's why your baby easily remembers their favorite teacher at daycare, but not Aunt Martha who met them last month.

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When do memories start?

Even in their first two months, your baby can recognize familiar faces and voices, especially those they see every day. Newborns can recognize their mothers' voice at birth, and breastfed babies can recognize their mother's smell. This kind of recognition is the first indication of memory, although it's very different from remembering the details of specific episodes.


Your baby's recognition memory – the ability to identify people and objects they've seen before after a delay or time apart – will increase dramatically during the first year. By the time they're 9 months old, your baby will be able to remember more specific information, such as where their toys are in your house. And they can recognize a real-life object like a toy from a picture.

They'll also be able to imitate actions they've seen as long as a week before. These skills indicate that older babies have recall memory – the ability to remember some details of a specific experience for a short amount of time – though they still don't remember most of their experiences.

When will my child have their first memory?

Most people's first memory is from ages 3 to 4. Creating an episodic memory (which involves personal events or experiences) requires different areas of the brain working in tandem, which takes time to develop.

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The answer to the question, "What is your first memory?" can vary based on how old you are when asked. Earliest memories differ between children and adults. Researchers believe we may have earlier memories than we can recall, some starting at around age 2.

First memories are usually the implicit type, when you remember more of a feeling about an event than the event itself. Explicit memories, the kind that involve events and facts, aren't robust until around age 6 or 7. For example, your child might have some general early memories of eating breakfast at the kitchen table before preschool, but they won't remember many details of your last summer vacation until around kindergarten or first grade.

To help your child remember early events, show them pictures and talk about what happened. For example, if you really want them to remember that family reunion trip to Florida when they were 4, look at the photos together and share funny stories from the trip. Your child probably won't remember all the details, but they'll feel like they remember it.

Interestingly, our memories are actually constantly updated and "rewritten" by our new experiences. Your child's happy memories of recounting the trip with you may be even more valuable than any memories of the trip itself.

Follow your baby's amazing development

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Stephanie Watson
Stephanie Watson is a freelance health and lifestyle writer based in Rhode Island. When she’s not busy writing, Watson loves to travel, try new cuisines, and attend as many concerts, shows, and plays as she can fit into her busy schedule.