Childhood Amnesia: Is It Possible To Lose Your Memories?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

You may have heard of amnesia from popular media. For example, in soap operas, a character might lose certain memories due to a trauma or brain injury, only to regain them after a specific event. However, this type of amnesia may be an unrealistic painting of how memory works, especially in the case of traumatic memories from childhood. Understanding how childhood experiences affect memory loss occurs can be beneficial if you struggle to remember parts of your early years.

This article will explore childhood memory retention, forgotten memories, potentially related mental health conditions, and things like trauma therapy that could help you begin to recall memories you’ve lost. 

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Are you curious about your infantile amnesia?

What is infantile amnesia?

Infantile amnesia is a type of memory loss that occurs naturally over time. You're not alone if you've forgotten some or most of your childhood. This type of amnesia happens to most people to varying degrees. Some worry that their infantile amnesia could be indicative of severe past traumas. However, it may not be the case. 

Repressed childhood memories are highly debated, as one can only prove a memory has been repressed with evidence that it happened. In addition, human memory is not necessarily reliable, and these fragmented recollections can be fabricated, changed, or imagined easily. Experts often believe infantile amnesia is a side effect of the brain's normal developmental process.

Infantile amnesia and aging

Memories of being a young child may fade over time. A child may be able to recall their early memories much better, but an adult may have a more difficult time being able to retrieve memories of what happened before a certain age. 

Children start losing early memories around their preteen years. By around 11, they may be less likely to recall early memories, and as their brain matures, they may lose those memories completely. Some children can forget early memories by the age of seven.

Why does infantile amnesia occur?

The brain is a complex organ, and researchers are still learning how it functions, so many theories exist about infantile amnesia. One of the most popular theories is synaptic pruning. To understand this concept, imagine a flower bush. When the bush becomes overgrown, it must be pruned to stay healthy and produce flowers. Synaptic pruning suggests that the brain has the same need to eliminate memories that are no longer necessary and make space for new ones.

The brain may remove memories if they're not needed in present, everyday life. In theory, this keeps your brain running efficiently. However, emotions also play a significant part in recalling memories. For example, you may be more likely to remember an event if it had a positive or negative emotional impact. Some people believe young children attach fewer emotions to events, making it harder to recall specific memories. 

Infantile amnesia could also be related to brain development. When a child is young, their brain is undeveloped, which may affect how their memories are stored and retrieved. The science behind memory recall can be complex. However, brains don't store memories the way a computer might. Instead, memories are a group of reactions coming from the brain. As a child grows, their brain develops, and it can be challenging to find memories from a previous stage of development, as the brain has completely changed.

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Is it common to forget your entire childhood or lose your childhood memories?

It's common for people to forget all memories before age four. If you don't have early childhood memories, it may be normal.  

However, some people can't remember anything or only remember limited events from their childhood before age 12. In this case, memory loss may be due to traumatic events (e.g., witnessing domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse,* emotional abuse,*). A child does not have to experience physical harm to develop intense feelings and trauma from an event. 

Childhood trauma can lead to dissociative amnesia, where a child dissociates during a traumatic event to defend themselves from its impact. It may also lead to the development of false memories. A false memory may be used by the brain to safeguard the child against the intense feelings that come with remembering an event as it happened. 

If this describes your experience, you may benefit from talking to a mental health professional. If you resonate with complete childhood memory loss, it might not indicate trauma. However, a therapist can help you rule out these experiences to help you understand why you can't remember your childhood.

*If you or someone you love is experiencing child sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or abuse of any kind, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7.

How to attempt early memory recall on your own

If you're curious about how to recall more of your childhood, you may benefit from writing down what you remember and pinpointing positive aids for remembering. 

Write down a recall of events 

To recall your memories, try writing down what event you're trying to remember. Include as many sensory details as possible. You may remember more of your childhood as you create an archive of childhood memories. You can come back and read what you've written at any time to see if new memories arise. 

Find memory aids 

In memory recollection, finding aids that help you remember your childhood may be valuable. Feelings, sights, sounds, and scents can remind you of a memory and bring you back to a specific time in your childhood because your brain uses these cues with storing memories. 

Experiment with aids like old toys, childhood photos, or songs to help you recall early memories. Scent, in particular, is the sense most strongly tied to memory formation and recollection, so try to focus your attention on utilizing scents from your childhood that may help spur memories. 

For example, if your childhood home had a lilac bush, try smelling lilac flowers and see what pops up for you. If nothing happens, don't worry; keep trying other scents and utilizing your other senses, such as listening to music you loved as a child.

Having visual aids can help immensely with recalling your early years. Childhood photos of major and minor events can give evidence and context to certain periods in your life, or old keepsakes like toys or collections can remind you of your interests and the memories surrounding those hobbies.

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Are you curious about your infantile amnesia?

Counseling options for childhood amnesia and childhood trauma

If you can't remember anything before age three, your memory loss may be normal. However, an underlying mental health concern or physical issue may be at play if you do not remember most of your childhood. Talking to a therapist can help you explore childhood memories in a safe and supportive environment.

Studies have shown that internet-based therapy can significantly positively affect those who have experienced trauma. A study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found online therapy effective in reducing trauma-related symptoms. The same study found that of clients who participated in internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), 69.2% made significant progress immediately after treatment, and 77% sustained progress at a three-month checkup.

Regardless of your schedule or location, online therapy can be convenient, and you can meet with a therapist whenever you need support. Online therapists have the same credentials as in-person therapists and can offer many of the same therapeutic modalities. If you're interested in meeting with an online therapist, you can sign up for platforms like BetterHelp, which has over 30,000 therapists licensed to offer many specialties, including trauma and memory care. 

Counselor reviews

"I have been working with Dr. Cheng for a few weeks now. She is extremely caring and patient. Very quickly she was able to identify my struggles and I feel very well cared for. I struggled a lot with one one-on-one session, but doing online has been quite less tiring for me. She is helping me with my anxiety and with past childhood traumas. I find that the exercises she provided me are of great use. I definitely recommend her."

"She is very easy to talk to and the feedback she provides is honest, and personalized to fit my situation. She challenges me to think about my past in a new way which is helping to address future concerns as they arise too! Very thankful to have her help and guidance!!!"

Takeaway

It can be overwhelming to realize you have forgotten your childhood. However, there are steps you can take to recall crucial memories. Journaling about your childhood is one place to start when trying to recall details. Working with a therapist can further help you by allowing you to discover or talk through potential trauma and create a treatment plan. 

Not being able to remember childhood memories may be frustrating or scary, but it's often a typical sign of aging. If you're curious to remember more of your childhood, consider the ideas in this article or reach out to a counselor who can support you through the process.

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