There's a lot of stigma surrounding breastfeeding. It's for hippies, it's gross to breastfeed a toddler, children shouldn't have to see it, nipples are tractor beams that will lure in people's gazes and cause them to fall into fits of apoplexy — you know, the usual. When I was breastfeeding my toddler, I wouldn't just get looks, I'd get questions and comments ranging from, "Isn't he too old to nurse?" to "Aren't you worried he'll remember and it'll get weird?" As if the most natural thing in the world could be made weird in memory. But, can kids remember being breastfed? And does it matter if they can?
Memory is a tricky thing, especially how we remember and process the experiences of early childhood. According to Dima Amso, an associate professor in the department of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, the type of memory formed by breastfeeding is referred to as an "episodic" memory, or one that is formed by images, experiences, the people involved, and the time in which the memory is formed. She wrote in Scientific American that memories formed in very early childhood might remain throughout the early parts of childhood, but not in adolescence or adulthood because as the brain develops, older memories formed fall away. However, memories of later childhood and adolescence are able to crystallize in the brain and remain in one's mental filing cabinet, so it's unlikely that children remember breastfeeding as they get older.
It's helpful to think about how memory works when discerning whether or not children remember breastfeeding. Because memory development happens in stages, according to Progressive Brain Research. They wrote that there are three primary stages of memory development: short term memory — which consists of those brief glimpses stored in your brain only for as long as you need them, long-term memory — the reified episodic, procedural, and declarative memories, and then working memory, which is a bit more complex. The article noted that working memory "has been conceived and defined in three different, slightly discrepant ways: as short-term memory applied to cognitive tasks." As in, you learn to throw a dart or solve a puzzle and complete that task. It's also found to work "as a multi-component system that holds and manipulates information in short-term memory." Which is to say that it re-routes bits of your memory and cognitive process in the moment. And working memory is also "the use of attention to manage short-term memory."
According to the journal, as the temporal lobes, portions of the parietal lobes, and prefrontal cortex develop throughout childhood and into the teen years and beyond, the memories formed in very early childhood are either lost or they fade away to be almost gone. Think about it. Try to think of the earliest memory you can conjure. I remember being about 3 years old and my mother trying to brush out my curls into pigtails as I screamed bloody murder. After that, I get glimpses of moments here or there, but not much. However, when I ask my 7-year-old daughter what her earliest memory is, it's the time we all went to Chuck E. Cheese, and my sister let her ride the horse ride with my a friend's son. She was about 18 months old when that happened, which is a good demonstration of how memory shifts as we age.
That's not to say there aren't outliers — people who remember the act of breastfeeding more than the rest of us. For example, if you're breastfed for a very long period of time, up to age 5 or beyond, you're likely going to be able to recall the act more readily than the rest of us who stop breastfeeding at a year or younger. Writer for Babble, Sierra Black, vividly wrote about her recall of the bond of breastfeeding with her mother. She wrote, "My earliest memories are of nursing with my mother. Being held in her arms in her big bed, pressing my face against her breast, snuggling close. They’re the definition of warmth and nurture to me." She breastfed until she was 3 years old, which might have something to do with her ability to remember it.
However, whether or not we know if kids can remember breastfeeding is probably less important than the real, cognitive impact that breastfeeding is shown to have. According to Korean research, children who were breastfed for an extended amount of time scored better on cognitive tests than their peers. So while they might not remember breastfeeding, they might be able to learn and remember more in general.