Thursday, June 21, 2012
Can They Remember?
Eliza knows that she was born early because I got sick and she needed to stay in the hospital to grow bigger. Although I've been talked with Eliza about being born early, I've not gone into any further detail than that. Eliza will tell people that first she was a "tiny baby" and had to stay in the hospital to grow and that she was a "baby" when she came home. Occasionally she'll ask something like was it winter when she was a "tiny baby and summer when she was a 'baby" but has never asked for much more than that. She has visited the NICU many times and has seen an isolette and knows that is where she stayed when she was a "tiny baby."
A few weeks back Eliza and I were driving to see a friend and out of the blue she asked me "why did the doctor have to fix me?" So I told her no one ever had to fix her (and it is not something I've ever said). She persisted and very insistently said that she was "broken" when she a "tiny baby" and that she had to be fixed. I told her she had never been "broken" and never needed to be "fixed." But, persistent child that she is, said she told me she "was broken and had to be fixed with lots and lots of needles and the doctor hurt her." We talked for a bit and I told her that needles were for vaccinations to keep germs away, but she said those were the "big" needles and not the "little" needles she needed to get "fixed." So we talked a bit more and she described the doctor that she had given her the "little" needles. The really odd, and almost disturbing thing, is that there is only one out of all of her doctors (about 8 of them) that remotely fits the description she gave, and it was a pretty accurate description. The doctor she described was one of her neonatologists. Eliza has seen this doctor maybe a dozen times post NICU but never in a medical setting nor has he ever treated her outside of the NICU.
My rational brain says there is no way she could remember any of the NICU, but the irrational side is saying "huh?" I wouldn't have thought too much more about this, but then Eliza started waking up periodically in the middle of the night crying saying that the needles hurt her. I've asked her again if she meant the needles that her pediatrician gives her and explained that these are vaccinations to keep us healthy, but she insists those are the "big" needles and that the "little needles" are the ones that hurt and which she needed when she was broken.
So of course this sent me to "the Google" (as my mother calls it) to see what I could find about retained infant memories. Some interesting things show up. There are a lot of happy little articles about infants remembering music, voices and flavors they were exposed to while in utero and in infancy. Then there are a handful of articles about men who seemingly remember pain from circumcision. And last but not least are the articles that are a bit more scholarly which talk about implicit and explicit memories and the development of each. Traumatic and painful events in the first two years of life are dismissed on the assumption that children don't remember anything before the age of two. This is partly true since explicit memory (conscious memory, the ability to verbalize the event) apparently is developed up until about age 3. But the implicit memory is there from birth (or arguably earlier if you want to give credence to the idea that children can remember sounds and flavors they were exposed to in utero). These articles suggest that the more traumatic the event in the early years of life, the more likely the memory of that event will, for lack of a better description, cross over into some form of explicit memory. Some articles also discuss the effects of traumatic early implicit memories on brain development. I wasn't able to locate any articles specifically studying infants with long term, invasive NICU stays, but would be interested in reading anything that anyone comes across.
If Eliza does remember something from the NICU, I hope that all of the good memories she has formed since then outweigh those painful memories.