Trauma in Babies and Young Children – The Role of Memory
Babies and very young children can experience trauma. Many believe that because a baby can’t remember an event, it won’t be traumatic to them. This is not the case. Trauma does require memory but there are different types of memory.
Cognitive memory is a memory that has a picture that goes with it and often some words to help explain the image. Cognitive memory unfolds with time and is typically developed around age 5 – think back to the earliest memory you can recall– you were probably around 5 years old, give or take a year.
Pre-cognitive memory is a memory that does not have an image or words that go with it. It is a memory that is held in the body, nervous system, and psyche and is related to events that occurred very early in life.
Babies and very young children experience everything through their senses and because the part of the brain that is responsible for storing memory with pictures is not yet developed, they ‘remember’ things in their bodies and the sensory system – the nervous system, the muscles, scents, sounds, etc.
Consider the wonderful experience of being held and snuggled by a loving parent – the baby doesn’t have a picture memory of this experience but does store this safe and comforting experience in their nervous system. The baby who experiences safety, warmth, and tenderness (what will someday be referred to as love) comes to expect this each time it is held. The baby forms a pre-cognitive memory in its body (via the senses) of what it feels like to be safe and cared for.
Now consider the baby that was ignored or treated harshly – it does not have a picture memory of the angry parent but the baby does store the feeling it had, likely fear and desperation, in the nervous system. If the maltreatment is recurrent or persistent, the baby will come to expect and anticipate harsh treatment. Its body will tighten, its brain is in a state of hyper-alertness, always being ready to protect itself from the scary things, such as an angry parent.
Potential Traumas in Babies
Babies can experience many stressful things that can overwhelm their ability to cope or be soothed. When this happens, the baby may store the experience as traumatic. In addition to harsh treatment, babies may be exposed to other types of trauma even when they have very loving parents. For example, having been born prematurely and requiring a stay in the NICU, medical trauma, separation from their parents, or disturbances in their relationship with a parent due to parental depression/anxiety. These are just a few examples of what could be traumatic for a baby or very young child.
When a baby experiences frequent, prolonged or intense events that cause it to dysregulate without reliable soothing, the baby’s brain and nervous system learn to exist in a hyper-alert state rather than relaxing. The baby’s system is always ready to protect itself which interferes with its ability to feel calm and safe. This is part of the stress/trauma response system.
Trauma can occur even with the most loving, attentive parents when their ability to respond to the baby’s needs are beyond the parent’s control. For example, in medical trauma, the parents often participate in the traumatic events by the assisting medical staff, holding the child while the treatment is administered, or not stopping the painful (and necessary) thing from happening. Sometimes parents have to allow stressful/traumatic things to happen in order to meet the child’s medical needs but from the child’s perspective, the parents have not protected them. This is an example of how medical trauma can also be a relational trauma.
Relational and Attachment Trauma
Because babies are in the process of developing their attachment to a caregiver and forming a foundation of what to expect in a relationship with others, any trauma a baby experiences is considered ‘relational’ because all trauma experiences have an impact on how the baby understands itself in relation to another person. When the relational trauma occurs between a baby and its primary care providers, we can refer to this trauma as ‘attachment trauma’.
Attachment and relational trauma, which inherently includes pre-cognitive memory, is treatable. Trauma therapy with a baby and young child looks different than traditional therapy and targets the body/nervous system and the internalized meaning the baby has formed about itself as a result of the overwhelming things it has experienced. If your baby or child (or even yourself) has experienced pre-cognitive trauma and you believe that this trauma affects your child today, reach out for help. Trauma is treatable and you and your baby deserve to feel better!
Check back for a future blog post on the stress response system in babies and young children.