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Cognitive Development in Infants

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Cognitive Development in Infants

When a baby is born, can they reason or think like adults? Can they remember anything?

  • Who were Piaget and Vygotsky?
  • What are the key characteristics of the cognitive development of babies?
  • What are examples of the cognitive development of babies?
  • Does breastfeeding help cognitive development?

Cognitive Development in Infants Definition

If you've ever interacted with a baby, you can tell that they have some milestones to pass before they can think and logic like an adult (or even a child). Every newborn develops differently, and some reach certain milestones before others. But overall, there is a particular path that each newborn follows in their cognitive development.

Cognitive development refers to how a child grows and evolves in the areas of their lives, including thinking, exploring, and reasoning. For babies, this cognitive development lays the crucial groundwork for their development later on.

Two psychologists were instrumental in theorizing about the cognitive development in newborns and children.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was a psychologist that studied cognitive development in children. He explained the growth of a child in a set of stages. The first stage is called the sensorimotor stage. This stage occurs between birth and two years of age and is characterized by newborns interacting with the world around them and developing thought. Since this first stage takes place during infancy, let's take a closer look at the substages of the sensorimotor stage.

Substage 1: Reflexes

0-1 month old

In this stage, newborns are responsive to touch and other stimulation.

Substage 2: Primary Circular Reactions

1-4 months old

In this stage, the infant can start to make more intentional and deliberate movements.

Substage 3: Secondary Circular Reactions

4-8 months old

In this stage, the infant is becoming more engaged with what is going on around them and starts to enjoy being able to make things happen.

Substage 4: Coordination of Reactions

8-12 months old

In this stage, the infant begins to develop the ability to make a plan and carry it out (such as retrieving a toy that rolled away).

Substage 5: Tertiary Circular Reactions

12-18 months old

In this stage, the infant begins to experiment with things around them to elicit a response or reaction.

Substage 6: Early Representational Thought

18 months - 2 years old

In this stage, the child starts to understand that symbols can represent objects. They also begin to develop object permanence.

This table shows the names of each stage, the age at which the newborn is in the stage, and the main developments in each stage. Newborns start by simply responding to touch. They're not fully controlling their movements, with reflexes being most of their actions. Then, the newborns develop to make more intentional movements by repeating an action. For example, a baby might first raise their arm accidentally but will then keep repeating it until it becomes intentional. In the third substage of Piaget's theory, the baby begins to see events in their environment and tries to repeat them.

The latter three stages don't apply to newborns, so they won't be described here.

The main goal of the sensorimotor stage is object permanence; something newborns do not have. With this ability, the child understands that people and objects continue to exist whether they can be seen or not. An example of this would be an adult playing with a toy with a newborn, then taking the toy and hiding it under the table. The newborn would not understand that the toy still exists and would not look for it.

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky was the other prominent psychologist known for his sociocultural theory about cognitive development. Piaget focused his research on the child's interactions with the world around them, while Vygotsky focused on interactions with the people around them. Vygotsky also noted that a person's culture would impact their cognitive development, something Piaget did not acknowledge (hence Vygotsky's sociocultural development).

Vygotsky theorized that there is a zone of proximal development (ZPD) where newborns and children learn. The ZPD exists between what a child knows how to do and what they can learn with help. Vygotsky claimed that there are things that a child can learn with the help of an adult that they would not be able to learn on their own. Those would fall into the ZPD. However, if something is too difficult for a child to learn, it would be outside of the ZPD, for even aid from an adult would not help them learn.

This even applies to newborns. There are some things that newborns can learn with help, whether it be through watching or help from an adult. By repeatedly watching a parent open and close their hand and accidentally doing it once, a newborn will be able to develop the ability to open and close their own hands.

Characteristics of Cognitive Development in Infants

Through looking at both of these psychologists' work, we can understand what specific characteristics are present in the cognitive development of newborns.

Thinking

As shown in Piaget's sensorimotor stage, the progression of thinking is a key characteristic of the cognitive development in newborns. Babies observe their environment and begin to realize that they are able to conduct actions that have results. They will then be able to link these thoughts and actions together to form different movements.

Newborns also begin to link events in their surroundings together. They can understand that when their mom gets the bottle out of the cabinet, they will be fed. Eventually, this thinking will lead to logic.

Cognitive Development in Infants, Photograph of a baby getting fed a bottle while looking at the camera, StudySmarterBabies will learn that the bottle means they are getting fed. pixabay.com.

Memory

So if a baby can think, can they remember? Studies show that some memories can be formed around two years old, but most occur around the seven-year-old mark. Babies can create what are called implicit memories.

Implicit memories are memories that are often unable to be recalled but are still stored as memories. People and babies are not consciously remembering when accessing their implicit memories.

Implicit memory for you is writing with a pencil. You don't recall every memory of when you were learning how to write, but you know how to write when you need to.

While babies cannot form explicit memories (when they actively and consciously recall an event from their memory), they are making implicit memories all the time. Studies also show that babies are able to remember events ranging from a couple of days to a couple of weeks at a time.

Language Development

Another key component of cognitive development in newborns is language development. Newborns learn to communicate with cries, facial expressions, and gestures. A newborn often has different sounding cries for different things. For example, They cry differently when they are hungry, have a dirty diaper, or get hurt. Their facial expressions can often tell a caregiver how they are feeling.

During the beginning of the newborn stage, an infant starts to coo and make gurgling sounds. This is a fun source of entertainment for them, but it is also a way for them to practice using their vocals and practice repeating sounds that they hear around them. Research has shown that newborns are able to make distinctions between sounds in any language (the phonemes), but if they do not use and are not exposed to those sounds, they will lose that ability. Research also shows that babies understand the basic phonemes of their native tongue by six months old, even if they cannot speak yet.

Eventually, babies are able to make more sounds (such as consonant or vowel sounds) and can communicate through gestures.

Holophrastic Speech

There continues to be language development past the newborn stage! Infants begin to communicate using holophrastic speech around 12-14 months of age. This is where they say things like “ga” and try to communicate the word with someone around them. Usually, whoever they are trying to communicate with has to interpret what they mean when making the sound “ga”. It is often much easier for the regular caregiver to understand what they are saying as opposed to someone who is not regularly around the child.

Hint: Language is an integral part of cognitive development. A child exposed to lots of words and sounds is more likely to use them and grow their knowledge base of language quicker than one who is not exposed to as many words. Language acquisition begins as early as the newborn age and continues throughout childhood and even into adulthood.

Examples of Cognitive Development in Infants

There is a wide variety of examples that show cognitive development in infants.

An example of cognitive development would be a baby sucking their fist (or thumb). Initially, this baby would have accidentally put their fist or thumb into their mouth. However, after accidentally doing that, the baby realizes that it was actually a calming action for them and does it again. The baby was able to cognitively piece together the behavior of the accidental movement with the emotional result. Through piecing this together, the baby also discovers a way to self-soothe.

The development of thinking in babies is linking actions together. The baby will learn that when they are put in their high chair, they will be fed. When they were first put in their high chair, they did not know what would happen and could not link together the high chair and the incoming food. But thanks to cognitive development, the babies can understand that getting put in the high chair means that they will be fed.

A baby begins to make sounds shows cognitive development. Although a baby might not have spoken for months, they are still listening to all the sounds they are exposed to. An incredible amount of language development happens in a baby's first two years, and a baby starting to try to communicate through sounds is a big first step.

Cognitive Development in Infants, Photograph of two babies lying on a blanket, StudySmarterBabies try to communicate, just like the rest of us! pixabay.com.

Activities to Promote Cognitive Development in Infants

There are a variety of activities that people can use to promote and encourage cognitive development in newborns and infants. Most of the activities promote the environmental and/or mental stimulation of the baby. Through continual interactions with other people and their environment, babies continue to develop cognitively.

Some activities to encourage cognitive development in infants are:

  • Playing with the baby
  • Arts and crafts
  • Talking with the baby so they can learn the phonemes of the language (and if you are multilingual, talk with the baby in all the languages you know, so they retain the ability to differentiate between varying sounds)
  • Expose the baby to different environments to explore
  • Have a mobile hung above the crib to stimulate cognitive development

Breastfeeding and Cognitive Development in Infants

Can breastfeeding a baby help with their cognitive development?

According to multiple studies, yes! Research shows that breastfed babies reported higher levels of cognitive development when compared to babies fed with formula. Other studies report that breastfed babies have higher IQs than their peers. There are many studies to support the relationship between breastfeeding and cognitive development.

There is still some pushback from other researchers about this claim, stating that other environmental factors tend to be associated with breastfeeding could lead to the cognitive advantage.

Cognitive Development in Infants - Key takeaways

  • Jean Piaget theorized that children develop in stages. The stage that encompasses the infant is the sensorimotor stage.
  • Lev Vygotsky said that children, including newborns and infants, can learn the best in the zone of proximal distance when they receive some help from adults on somewhat difficult topics
  • Thinking, memory, and language are three key aspects of cognitive development in babies
    • Babies store implicit memories, ones that are unconsciously recalled
  • Activities to promote cognitive development include any interactions with the baby to help them continue to interact with their environment

Frequently Asked Questions about Cognitive Development in Infants

Cognitive development in infants is the development of the brain through exploring new things and influences around an infant.

Cognitive development is important for infants because it is an integral time in their development and lays the groundwork for their future brain development and abilities.

Factors that affect cognitive development in infants are language development, environment, exposure, and the infant's age.

Biological factors are important because they impact cognitive development, including nutrition, genetics, gender, and basic brain chemistry.

Ways to stimulate cognitive development are interacting and talking with the baby.

Final Cognitive Development in Infants Quiz

Question

Who is Jean Piaget?

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Answer

Jean Piaget was a psychologist that studied cognitive development in children.

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Question

What is the sensorimotor stage of development in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development?

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Answer

In the sensorimotor stage of development, the child uses their senses to interact with the world around them and to learn about their environment and surroundings.

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Question

How many substages are in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, the sensorimotor stage?


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Answer

There are six substages to sensorimotor development. 

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Question

What is the first substage of sensorimotor development?


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Answer

The first substage of sensorimotor development is reflexes, in this stage newborns are responsive to touch and other stimulation around them.

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What is the second substage of sensorimotor development?


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The second substage of sensorimotor development is primary circular reactions, this stage is when the baby begins to make more intentional and specific movements.

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What is the third substage of sensorimotor development?


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The third substage of sensorimotor development is secondary circular reactions, in this stage, the baby starts using objects and things around them and realizes that they can make things happen.

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What is implicit memory?

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Answer

Memories that are often unable to be recalled but are still stored as memories 

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What is explicit memory?

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Answer

When we actively and consciously recall a memory

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Question

What is a phoneme and what is interesting about babies and phonemes?

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Answer

A phoneme is a sound that pertains to a language. When a baby is born they have the ability to make distinctions between different phonemes across any language. 

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What is object permanence?


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Answer

Object permanence is when the child understands that people and objects continue to exist whether they can be seen or not.

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Who is Lev Vygotsky?


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Answer

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist that is best known for his sociocultural theory.

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Question

What is the sociocultural theory?


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Sociocultural Theory is when you look at a child’s social and cultural environment and what kinds of interactions that child has with adults and peers to see their influence.

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Question

Is language development a key component to cognitive development for newborns?


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Answer

Yes, language plays a large role in cognitive development for newborns. 

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Question

What is holophrastic speech?


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Answer

Holophrastic speech is where the child says things like “ga” and is trying to communicate the word, “go” with someone around them.

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Question

Does breastfeeding impact cognitive development?

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Answer

Yes! Studies have shown that babies who are breastfed are more cognitively advanced than those who aren't. 

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