Infancy Cognitive DevelopmentAngela Oswalt, MSW
Babies are not only growing physically during the first 2 years of life, but also cognitively (mentally). Every day while they interact with and learn about their environment they are creating new connections and pathways between nerve cells both within their brains, and between their brains and bodies. While physical growth and change is easily observed and measured in precise terms such as in inches and pounds, cognitive change and development is a little harder to determine as clearly. Therefore, much about what experts know about mental and cognitive development is based on the careful observation of developmental theorists and their theories, such as Piaget's theory of cognitive development and Erickson's psychosocial stages. Bronfenbrenner's ecological model also helps explain infant mental growth to some extent.
According to Piaget, newborns interact with their environment entirely through reflexive behaviors. They do not think about what they're going to do, but rather follow their instincts and involuntary reactions to get what they need: food, air, and attention. Piaget believed that as babies begin to grow and learn about their environment through their senses, they begin to engage in intentional, goal-directed behaviors. In other words, they begin to think about what they want to accomplish, how to accomplish it, and then they do it. This is also when infants develop object permanence, which is the ability to understand that something still exists even if it can't be seen. These two milestones, goal-directed behavior and object permanence, are the highlights and major accomplishments of infant cognitive development.
Piaget separated infancy into six sub-stages, which have been adjusted somewhat over the years as new research and discoveries have occurred The sub-stages include: reflexive activity, primary circular reactions, secondary circular reactions, coordination of secondary schemes, tertiary circular reactions, and beginning or representational thought. While these sub-stages sound highly confusing and complicated, they will be explained in more detail in the next paragraphs in order to simplify them and highlight the important aspects of each.
The first sub-stage is reflexive activity, which lasts from birth to approximately 1 month. According to Piaget, while babies are engaging in reflexive actions such as sucking when offered a bottle or the breast, or other reflexes covered earlier in this article, they are learning about their environment and how they can interact with it. Babies don't think about behaving reflexively; they simply act out those reflexes automatically.
The second sub-stage is primary circular reactions, which spans the ages of 1 to 4 months. During this time, babies intentionally repeat actions that bring them pleasure and desired outcomes. In other words, they do things on purpose because it feels good or it gets them what they want. For example, a small infant may suck on her fist because it feels good to her and it soothes her. Researchers believe that babies of this age may also develop expectancy about cause and effect situations. Babies will begin to see that a pattern of events is connected, and begin to expect the second event after they experience the first event. For example, a baby of this age may learn that when they see a bottle, they expect they will soon be fed. Babies' expectancies about the predictability of their environment form the foundation of Erickson's observation that young infants learn to either trust or mistrust their environment. If a baby learns the pattern that they have a need, such as hunger or discomfort, and that need is regularly addressed, they learn to expect their needs to be met and they learn to trust. On the other hand, if babies learn a pattern that they have needs and those needs are not regularly addressed, they will learn to expect that their needs will not be met and they learn to mistrust the world around them.
Recent Research on the Brain and Early Childhood Development
As research in neuroscience advances, our understanding of the brain and healthy brain development continues to change. The following are some recent reports and news releases highlighting cutting-edge research related to the brain and child development. Examples of recent brain research are also highlighted on the BBB home page.
Click on the following links to view the articles in that content area:
Brain Anatomy and Development
Brain Disorders and Disabilities
Attachment and Relationships
Consistency and Stress
Brain Anatomy and Development
Amygdala Processes Other Emotions Besides Fear
New research shows the amygdala is also active in response to pleasant experiences.
The Brain and Culture
The function of the brain may actually be influenced by individuals' cultural environments.
Brain Development and Reasoning
Building structural connections in a young child's developing brain is essential for higher-order brain functioning.
Deliberate Practice of New Skills
Research shows that children as young as age 6 understand what practice is and deliberately practice for the future.
Dendrites and Memory
New research shows that dendrite activity has a role in storing long-term memories.
Do Brain Games Really Work?
A review of the research on the effectiveness of cognitive training that promises to delay or reduce mental decline.
Early Experiences Can Alter Gene Expression
In a new working paper, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child explains how early experiences can actually change the way genes express themselves, with long-term implcations.
Early Life Experience and Critical Periods
New research confirms that early experiences have the power to change brain circuits.
Genetics and Attention to the World
Research with twins suggests that genetics heavily influence gaze patterns, which contribute to children’s attention and interaction with the environment.
Genetics Contribute to Aggression in Toddlers
A new study of twins shows that differences in the development of aggression in toddlers are partly due to genetic differences.
Children who believe their intelligence can grow are more likely to learn from their mistakes than children who think their intelligence is fixed.
How the Brain Categorizes Images
A new technology known as SWIFT provides more in-depth information about how the human brain categorizes images.
How the Brain Navigates
New research from Norway shows how the brain maps the environment to make navigation in space possible.
New Information about Glial Cells
The brain's glia support and protect neurons, but also play a role in regulating learning and memory.
Resource on Enhancing Executive Function
The Center on the Developing Child has created a resource with practical tips and activities to help children and teens with working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility -- the three major abilities that contribute to executive function.
Sex Differences in the Brain
Neuroscientists are recognizing that men’s and women’s brains have different patterns of neural activity in some areas.
Brain Disorders and Disabilities
Abuse Changes the Brain
Researchers have discovered that child abuse changes the thickness of the myelin coating of axons in the brain. These changes could have long-lasting negative effects on emotion regulation and attachment.
Adolescent ADHD and the Brain
Young adults diagnosed with ADHD in adolescence have different brain structure than young adults who do not have ADHD.
Brain Wiring and Sensory Processing Disorder
New technology shows that children with SPD have different neural pathways in brain areas responsible for auditory, visual, and tactile processing.
Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy Can Affect Future Generations
Mothers who drink even small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk of alcoholism in the next three generations.
Early Exposure to Toxic Substances Damages Brain Architecture
This report by the National Scientific Council for the Developing Child, explores ways that toxic substances can disrupt the development of all of the body’s organ systems, including the brain.
Maternal Depression Can Undermine Young Children's Development
A working paper from the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child summarizes research on maternal depression and child development.
Prematurity and Brain Development
Developmental differences in late-preterm babies may not show up until after age 2.
Recovery from Childhood ADHD
Researchers have discovered that adults whose childhood ADHD persisted into adulthood have more thinning of the cortex than adults who had ADHD as children but grew out of it.
School Success in Premature Babies
Many parents of premature babies fear that their child will have later difficulties in school, but research shows that most babies born prematurely are ready for kindergarten on time and achieve similar academic outcomes to full-term babies.
Teen Alcohol Exposure and the Brain
Adolescent drinking may lead to difficulties adapting to stress as an adult, at least in rats.
Tobacco Exposure and Behavior Problems in Children
Babies exposed to tobacco products in utero, or shortly after birth, have an increased risk of behavior problems.
How Newborns See Faces
Researchers in Oslo have used modeling to construct images of how newborn infants see people around them.
Newborns Distinguish Touch
New research suggests that young infants can already distinguish between different kinds of touch on the skin.
Music and Infant Development
Infant-directed song may have evolved as a way for adults to signal to infants that their needs are being met.
Background Noise and Language Learning
Toddlers in noisy environments may have more difficulty learning new words.
Benefits of Reading with Infants
Regularly reading out loud to children, beginning in infancy, can increase vocabulary and reading skills even before they enter school.
Early Language Learning
Even brief exposure to a language in infancy affects how the brain is wired for language.
Early Language Learning and Depression
Children with low levels of language stimulation in the first three years of life have a higher risk of childhood depression.
New Insights about Early Language Development
What does toddlers’ use of “a” and “the” tell us about their language development?
Reading to Young Children Changes Brain Activity
Researchers have confirmed that reading to children before they enter kindergarten changes the way the brain processes stories, and may predict later reading success.
Second-Language Learning and the Brain
Studying a second language, even for a short period of time, improves attention skills.
Sounding Out Words Increases Brain Activity in Reading Centers
New brain wave studies show that sounding out words increases activity in parts of the brain wired for reading.
Stuttering and the Brain
People who stutter have less blood flow to Broca’s area, which controls productive language in the brain.
Brain Connections and Sleep
A new study shows that connections between the brain’s left and right hemispheres strengthen during sleep.
Concussions and the Brain
Learn how concussions affect the brain.
How Sugar Affects the Brain
This TED talk explains how sugar affects the brain, and why sugar tends to be so addictive for many people.
Motor Skill Development and School Readiness
Preschoolers with better fine and gross motor skills perform better on kindergarten readiness measures.
Physical Activity and Cognitive Skills
Activities that require balance, such as climbing trees and balancing on a beam, can improve working memory.
Sleep and Eating Habits
Children with poorer-quality sleep tend to have higher body mass index than children who sleep better.
Starting Solid Foods
Researchers have discovered that many infants begin eating complementary foods too soon. Current recommendations suggest introducing solid foods to infants at 6 months of age.
Attachment and Relationships
Young Children in an Environment of Relationships
This working paper, released by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, summarizes research on early relationships and childn development. The research indicated that early relationships form the foundation for the development of brain circuits, as well as later developmental outcomes. The paper also identifies ways to improve policies that suppport strong, positive relationships in the early years.
Benefits of Music Training
Music training positively changes children's brain structure, leading to lasting benefits.
Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School
This report, released by the Alliance for Childhood, documents negative consequences of "test-driven" instructional strategies that have completely replaced play in many kindergartens.
The Serious Need for Play
A Scientific American article summarizes research on the benefits of free play for children's cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Too Much Television in Early Childhood
A new report from the University of Montreal shows that toddlers who watch more television than average have more academic and social problems in middle childhood.
Consistency and Stress
Early Life Stress and Later Depression
The stress of early abuse and neglect may make the brain less able to process positive emotions and rewards.
Reducing Toxic Stress in Children Enrolled in Early Head Start
Researchers are investigating the most effective ways to minimize toxic stress in children living below the poverty line, working through the federal Early Head Start program.
Excessive Stress Disrupts the Brain's Architecture
This working paper, released by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, highlights the importance of a nurturing, supportive environment to protect young children against the harmful effects of chronic toxic stress.
Regular Routines Reduce Obesity Risk
Regular bedtimes, mealtimes, and other routines help preschoolers regulate emotions, which may help reduce obesity risk later in life.
Teacher Burnout and Child Stress
Elementary students whose teachers are experiencing burnout tend to have higher cortisol levels, indicating more stress.