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Baby Development

Understanding Your Baby’s Cognitive Development

Consider, for example, that babies and young children gradually build a knowledge about their parents, including what they look like, how they speak, what they wear, when they are most happy and most angry, how they provide love and affection, why one or the other or both leave in the morning and come home at night, and more.

Cognitive development includes acquiring information in a relatively efficient way, learning associations between two acts such as a parent’s appearance and being picked up, learning to remember, understanding categories of things such as animals versus trucks, and developing insights about cause-and-effect relationships. Specifics of learning include knowledge of people and how they look and respond, knowledge of objects including their functions, awareness of time, and awareness of causality in that one event causes another.

The overall growth of cognitive skills moves rapidly from three months on, albeit there are times when cognitive growth just seems to burst forth. One of these times seems to occur between six and twelve months, and another takes place between eighteen and twenty-four months. These latter two periods have been linked to changes in brain functioning. All three age periods are associated with changes in the amount of knowledge babies have, in how they use their knowledge, and in the memories they can retain.

Still another subset of the behaviors in the cognition domain is called intelligence. Basically, intelligence is a word that refers to how skillfully and efficiently we use the knowledge we have, particularly when we have to deal with novel and unique situations. Do babies display intelligent behavior? Yes, clearly toward the end of the first year. At about ten months, a baby might recognize that her bottle contains something to drink (even though she doesn’t know the word drink) and knows exactly what to do when the bottle is handed to her. This cognitive activity demonstrates the baby has acquired some knowledge; that is, she knows what a bottle is used for.

Now, here’s where knowledge is used intelligently. The baby is sitting on the floor drinking from her bottle when her big sister approaches with a new doll. The baby drops her bottle and looks at the doll. Accidentally, the sister kicks the bottle and it rolls behind a big stuffed chair. Seeing the bottle disappear, the baby creeps around the chair to retrieve it. She could have cried and done nothing, but she did not. Instead she came up with the solution and an action—that is intelligent behavior.

There has been, and continues to be, considerable controversy about the meaning of behaviors with respect to infant cognitive development. Recent disagreements center on the first year of life and relate to interpretations of behaviors observed in the newborn period and at various other points during the first year. Fundamentally, the disputes often center on whether babies are engaging in perceptual discriminations or reasoned cognitive activities. I believe that many of the studies, and the arguments made for them, have few direct consequences for parenting. Just keep in mind that there is a fundamental need for responsive and sensitive parenting in the first few months of life and later. Overall I remain an unadventurous interpreter of babies’ early perceptual and cognitive skills. As parents, you must feel free to evaluate research and make up your own minds.

Lastly, cognitive-oriented developmental expert increasingly emphasize the importance of social influences on cognitive development. Parents, other adults, and even older siblings provide many forms of assistance to a baby or toddler as she is trying to understand the toys she plays with. This assistance may take many forms, from simply moving a toy closer to the baby for better inspection to showing how blocks can be stacked on top of each other. This social emphasis on cognition is one that I wholeheartedly agree with.

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