While many children seem to have memories like steel traps when it comes to learning song lyrics or favorite stories, they often cannot seem to remember to put their toys away, and even remembering to brush their teeth each day seems impossible. If this sounds like your child, try the following guidelines to help develop and improve his memory, whatever his age.
What is Memory?
Memory is a process of retaining, storing, and recalling experiences. The main key to memory retention is moving information from the short-term memory into the long-term memory. In her book Super Baby, Dr. Sarah Brewer says that the short-term memory stores facts for around five minutes, while the long-term memory can store facts for as long as your child’s lifetime. Long-term memory comprises habit memory such as learned skills (riding a bicycle) and recognition memory which includes the storage of general knowledge and personal experiences.
The following are everyday ways you can help improve your child’s memory.
- Reading Retention: More than just quality time together, reading familiar books with your child can actually help memory development. As you read aloud, your child learns the story and, through repetition, will remember the story and then be able to retell it.
- Memory Games: Matching games are excellent tools to improve memory. One such game I played recently with my five-year-old godson, Daniel, is our version of Snap. A deck of printed cards has paired pictures and the cards are then laid face down in rows. Taking turns, each player turns over two cards at a time. The player gets to keep each pair of correctly matched cards, and the person with the most cards wins the game. Daniel is excellent at this game and usually wins!
Another way in which Daniel’s mother helps to maintain his memories of events and people is to ask questions. If they drive past a friend’s house she asks, “Who lives there?” or if they are going grocery shopping she asks Daniel to direct her to the milk or bread. Because Daniel and I live far from each other, I ask if he knows who is speaking each time I phone him. He always does and has even started volunteering the information as soon as I say hello!
- Establish Routines: Children thrive on routine, and routines are perfect tools in developing memory skills. My niece knows that as soon as her mother says, “Rub a dub dub, who’s in the tub?” it is bath-time and she squeals with excitement. She also knows that once she has had her bath it is time for bed, and often starts yawning when she is being put into her pajamas.
Quality sleep is essential to your child’s health and well-being, and enables the brain to retrieve and assimilate facts learned during the day.
Research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) show that at least 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders and, even more alarming, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of Health reports that closer to 70 million Americans, many of them children, do not get enough sleep each night.
How much sleep is enough? NSF offers the following guidelines for young children:
- Although newborns have no defined sleep patterns, they sleep between 10.5 to 18 hours a day, with the average being 14.5 hours per day.
- Infants (two to twelve months) sleep longer at night with more distinct daytime naps. At two months, their total average sleep will be around 14.5 hours, with nine and a half hours night sleep and five hours nap sleep.
- A six-month-old child will sleep for the same average time, but her sleep will be broken into 11 hours night sleep with three and a half hours nap-time sleep.
- At 12 months, the average sleep will be down to 14 hours, with 11.5 hours at night and two and a half hours nap-time sleep.
- By age three, a child’s average sleep will be 13 hours, with 11.5 of those hours at night and the remaining one and a half hours taken during daytime naps.
Prenatal: Nutrition for optimal learning, memory enhancement, and brain development starts before your child is even born. Melissa Diane Smith, a Tucson-based nutritionist and health educator, and author of Going against the Grain and the national bestselling Syndrome X says, “When you are pregnant, it is important to eat a diet as nutrient rich as possible, especially nutrients that are important for optimal brain function such as the B vitamins, zinc, iron, potassium, and magnesium. This means emphasizing poultry, meats, and a wide variety of nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also important to avoid sweets and alcohol, which deplete nutrient supplies.”
Smith adds that it is vital for pregnant women to get enough DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), either from fatty fish such as wild salmon or from taking supplements. “DHA is critical for normal brain development, and lack of DHA is associated with learning deficits (as well as reduced visual function),” she says.
Babies and Toddlers: Once your child is born, Smith advises that you “do the thing that confers many benefits and seems to make a huge difference in brain development and attention and memory skills: breastfeed your child.”
Dr. Brewer agrees. “A variety of studies have shown the beneficial effects of breast milk on a baby’s emotional, physical, and intellectual development. By the age of three months, the IQ of babies who are breastfed is three points higher than those fed on formula, and those who are breastfed until six months have an IQ that is six points higher than those receiving formula,” she says.
School-Age Children: Smith says if a child is having trouble with learning, mental focus, and his or her memory, the first place to look is at improving his or her diet. “Our concentration and our ability to think clearly, which are the keys to learning and memory retention, are controlled by the brain—and the brain is the first organ to suffer a lack of nutrients or lack of fuel,” she says. “Therefore, if a child is having trouble with learning, mental focus, and his or her memory, the first place to look is at improving his or her diet.”
She adds that the primary reason children could have trouble with their learning or memory skills today is because of erratic blood sugar levels (blood sugar highs followed by blood sugar lows) caused from eating sweets and refined-grain snack foods and from drinking soft drinks or even too many fruit juices. Another reason for lack of mental focus could be due to blood sugar lows caused from going too long without eating—skipping breakfast, for example.
“The fuel for the brain is glucose, or blood sugar, and poor blood sugar control is associated with impaired cognitive function. The easiest way to improve learning and memory performance is to avoid blood sugar spikes and dips and instead to provide the brain with an even, steady supply of food,” says Smith. She recommends that children avoid sweets and soft drinks and eat blood-sugar balancing meals that emphasize animal protein, some vegetables or fruits, and some nuts.
Smith advises parents to be aware of possible food sensitivities (especially to wheat), as undiagnosed food sensitivities can sometimes lead to lack of mental focus and fuzzy thinking. Lastly, kids need to get plenty of water throughout the day, since even mild dehydration causes mental performance to deteriorate.
The virtues of baby massage are extolled in many pregnancy/baby books, and the benefits cannot be ignored: infant massage helps with parent/child bonding, soothes baby’s fears, helps strengthen the immune system, and can even ease teething pains and colic. What many parents may not realize is that infant massage also contributes speed and efficiency to the function of the brain, accelerating the process of myelination—a process which begins at birth and continues in the frontal lobe into a person’s twenties. Myelin is a greasy coating around the nerves in the brain and allows these nerves to quickly conduct electrical impulses from one brain area to another. Children’s brains are naturally slow compared with adult brains because of the relative state of myelination.
In his book Tender Touch, Dr. Paul Staerker says, “Massaging a child at an early age stimulates nervous development and aids in neuromuscular coordination. By using massage you are helping to develop the child’s nervous and muscular systems.” He adds that the brain and immune system continually “talk” to one another, which explains how our state of mind influences our overall health. If your child is healthy and happy, she will be more receptive to learning than a child who is ill or suffers from an on-going ailment.
A retentive memory is a multi-faceted asset that will impact your child’s overall life experiences, from early learning, to job performance, to affecting the relationships she will develop as she grows. Ensuring that your child eats a nutritious diet, gets sufficient sleep, and has fun learning are all steps parents can take to help their child not only develop good memory skills but be a healthy, happy person.