Understanding and Supporting Your Baby's Cognitive Development

Understanding and Supporting Your Baby's Cognitive Development
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The last two decades of infancy research have seen dramatic changes in the way developmental psychologists characterize the earliest stages of cognitive development. The infant, once regarded as an organism driven mainly by simple sensorimotor schemes, is now seen as possessing sophisticated cognitive skills and even sophisticated concepts that guide knowledge acquisition” (Madole and Oakes 1999).

Cause and Effect

Infants learn through their senses. They actively move their bodies to touch, mouth, see and hear what happens. This exploration develops the understanding of cause and effect. The infant becomes aware that they can make something happen through their physical actions. Activities that support and extend this understanding include:

  • Responding to infants’ cries, cooing, and eye contact
  • Toys that play music or light up when touched or moved
  • Rattles, bells, or other objects the infant can hold or manipulate with ease to make something happen independently
  • Rolling a ball for the infant to kick or push

Object Permanence

The idea that something exists even when it is out of sight is called object permanence. A young infant does not have the ability to understand that when their caregiver or a preferred object (such as a special blanket) is still around if it is out of sight. Over time, infants develop this concept through games such as:

  • Peek-a-boo
  • Hiding a stuffed animal under a blanket
  • Rolling a car under a box and then removing the box to find the car

Spatial Relationships

The learning of spatial relationships involves developing an understanding of how things move and fit in space. Such things as looking at their own hand at three months of age or watching and attempting to push a ball back and forth at six months is a way infants learn about how things fit and work around them. They explore how things feel and move in their hands and visually track people as they move around them helps to develop awareness about movement and space. Ways to support the development of spatial relationships include:

  • Holding a cup in one hand and placing it down to pick up another
  • Putting items in a container and dumping them out repeatedly
  • Dropping food from the highchair

Problem Solving

Recent research has proven that infants have a much higher ability to solve problems than previously thought. Learning how to get what they want or need by crying or gesturing is an early form of problem solving. As infants get better at controlling their hands and arms, they will reach out to grasp toys or find something that is behind another in order to get a preferred object. Vocalizing to obtain a caregiver’s attention when hungry is another form of early problem solving. Additional activities to support early problem solving include:

  • Kicking a mobile to make it move over and over
  • Shaking a rattle to hear it make sounds
  • Pull a string on a toy to bring it closer to them


Imitation has been identified as an extremely powerful component in infants’ cognitive learning and development. Infants imitate caregivers’ facial expressions and head movements. Infants have the ability to imitate immediately and to have delayed imitation. Delayed imitation is when an infant imitates a behavior previously observed, at a later time. Imitation is recognized as being an integral part in all areas of an infant’s development: cognitive, physical, and social-emotional. To help infants practice imitation skills try:

  • Copying caregiver’s actions during simple games such as Peek-a Boo and simple finger plays
  • Back and forth vocalizations between infant and caregiver during play time or diaper changings
  • Patting the back of a baby doll and the infant repeating the same action during play


The ability to develop memory allows infants to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar adults and to begin to anticipate daily routines and positive social interactions. Infants as young as three months have demonstrated the ability to recall information from an earlier time. As infants get older, they are able to remember things for longer periods of time. To help infants improve their memory skills, some suggestions include:

  • Partially hiding an object and having the infant retrieve it
  • Hiding a preferred object under one of three containers and having the infant try to find it
  • Reading a familiar book over and over and naming familiar objects on the pages will help develop infant’s memory, as well as early literacy and language skills


Many things are actively processing in an infants’ mind, immediately after birth! Creating a safe, appropriate environment for the infant allows him or her to actively explore the world around them through the use of their senses and physical actions. Through this exploration, infants are able to develop their skills in all foundations of cognitive development.