Parenting in a data-driven world

From Reflexes to Symbolic Thought: Cognitive Development, 0–2 years (Part 1)

Gunnar Kristoffer Wold
Founder and CEO at Oogababy

Gunnar Kristoffer Wold
Founder and CEO at Oogababy

Cognitive changes in a baby´s development occur during the first two years of its life. People often insist that this is a crucial period of time for a child— and the role of parenthood is of even greater importance.

A great amount of cognitive developmental theory is influenced by the work of psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget suggests that babies aged 0–2 years go through the “sensorimotor” stage of development. This is a term he used to describe the way babies think — by using their senses and motor skills (acquired when babies learn how to control their movement and coordinate their muscles) — during the first period of cognitive development. Piaget also explains that during the period beginning with birth and ending at approximately 24 months, cognitive development progresses through six different stages.

The first sub stage (0–1 month old) is the stage of reflexes. A newborn responds to the external world with innate reflexes. We expect the baby to breastfeed, move his eyes and hands, breath, suck and swallow.

In addition, a newborn comes in to the new world with some inner reflexes which become extinct in the first few months of its life. These include:

  • Babinski reflex, in which the toes fan out and curl when the sole of the foot is stroked

  • Stepping reflex, when the infant lifts one foot after another when it is weight supported and touching a solid surface with its feet, a reflex usually mistaken with the ability to start walking

  • Moro reflex, when the arms are out and then clasped to body

  • Rooting reflex, when the head turns towards a stimulation, the mouth opens and the tongue moves forward — a reflex crucial to start breastfeeding; and

  • Palm Grasp, when the infant grasps objects when placing them into his or her palm.

Each of these reflexes disappear at different times within the first year of life.

The second sub stage (1–4 months old) is the stage of primary circular reactions. At this stage, a baby will repeat actions that give him pleasure (i.e., sucking his thumb). These actions are not reflexes. At this point, infants learn to coordinate sensations. A few weeks after birth, a baby begins to understand some of the information it is receiving from its senses and learns to use some muscles and limbs for movement.

The third sub stage (4–8 months old) is the stage of secondary circular reactions. Babies, at this stage, repeat actions that will combine the use of their body and the use of objects in their environment (i.e., grabbing a bottle to suck it, coos for a person to stay nearby, shaking a rattle). During this stage babies become aware of things beyond their own body and become more object oriented.

The fourth sub stage (from 8–12 months of life) is the stage of new adaptation and anticipation (i.e., putting his mother’s hands together to make her start playing patty-cakes, using a stick to reach something, realize that a rattle will make a sound when shaken). This is the stage of coordination of reactions, vision and touch. A baby will start to show intentional actions and will combine knowledge to reach a desirable outcome. Babies start to imitate their environment and observe the behavior of others.

The fifth stage covers the period between 12 and 18 months, known as the stage of tertiary circular reactions. During this exciting period of time, an infant will find new reactions through experimentation. Infants start to learn about their environment through trial and experimentation. Their reactions are now intentional adaptations to specific situations. For example, an infant stacks toy cubes he or she took out of a box, or back again, or replaces them back in nesting cups — one inside the other. An infant will leave a block to fall, use it to hit another block or slide it across the floor. An infant will also use sounds and actions to attract his or her caregiver´s attention.

From 18 to 24 months the most impressive cognitive achievements can be observed. This is the time (sixth stage) when symbolic thought begins. Babies can now attain mental representations of objects. A shift to symbolic thinking occurs and babies are able to use mental representations rather than purely actions. The baby is capable of mentally picturing an object without the object being present, with the use of language, and has the ability to find an object that has been moved while out of sight.

We can also, at this stage, expect a baby to remember another baby’s wrong behavior (such as a baby throwing a block to him or her and hitting him or her) and retaliating the next time they meet.

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Parenting in a data-driven world