4.2 Cognitive Growth in Infancy

What’s cognitive development like in the first two years?

A toddler building a tower out of colorful blocks

In addition to rapid physical growth, infants also exhibit significant development of their cognitive abilities, particularly in language acquisition and in the ability to think and reason. You already learned a little bit about Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in this section, we’ll apply that model to cognitive tasks during infancy and toddlerhood. Piaget described intelligence in infancy as sensorimotor or based on direct, physical contact where infants use senses and motor skills to taste, feel, pound, push, hear, and move in order to experience the world. These basic motor and sensory abilities provide the foundation for the cognitive skills that will emerge during the subsequent stages of cognitive development.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe Piaget’s sub-stages of sensorimotor intelligence
  • Explain learning and memory abilities in infants and toddlers
  • Describe stages of language development during infancy
  • Compare theories of language development in toddlers
  • Explain the procedure, results, and implications on moral reasoning research in infants

Cognitive Development

Cognitive Development in Infants

In order to adapt to the evolving environment around us, humans rely on cognition, both adapting to the environment and also transforming it. In general, all theorists studying cognitive development address three main issues:

  1. The typical course of cognitive development
  2. The unique differences between individuals
  3. The mechanisms of cognitive development (the way genetics and environment combine to generate patterns of change)

The Cognitive Perspective: The Roots of Understanding

Cognitive theories focus on how our mental processes or cognitions change over time. The theory of cognitive development is a comprehensive theory about the nature and development of human intelligence first developed by Jean Piaget. It is primarily known as a developmental stage theory, but in fact, it deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how humans come gradually to acquire it, construct it, and use it. Moreover, Piaget claims that cognitive development is at the center of the human organism and language is contingent on cognitive development. Let’s learn more about Piaget’s views about the nature of intelligence and then dive deeper into the stages that he identified as critical in the developmental process.

Stages of Cognitive Development

Like Freud and Erikson, Piaget thought development unfolded in a series of stages approximately associated with age ranges. He proposed a theory of cognitive development that unfolds in four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

Table 2. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Age (years)StageDescriptionDevelopmental issues
0–2SensorimotorWorld experienced through senses and actionsObject permanence
Stranger anxiety
2–7PreoperationalUse words and images to represent things but lack logical reasoningPretend play
Language development
7–11Concrete operationalUnderstand concrete events and logical analogies; perform arithmetical operationsConservation
Mathematical transformations
11–Formal operationalUtilize abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinkingAbstract logic
Moral reasoning

Piaget and Sensorimotor Intelligence

Adorable smiling toddler boy.
Figure 5. Toddlers happily explore the world, engaged in purposeful goal-directed behavior.

How do infants connect and make sense of what they are learning? Remember that Piaget believed that we are continuously trying to maintain cognitive equilibrium, or balance, between what we see and what we know (Piaget, 1954). Children have much more of a challenge in maintaining this balance because they are constantly being confronted with new situations, new words, new objects, etc. All this new information needs to be organized, and a framework for organizing information is referred to as a schema. Children develop schemas through the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

For example, 2-year-old Deja learned the schema for dogs because her family has a Poodle. When Deja sees other dogs in her picture books, she says, “Look mommy, dog!” Thus, she has assimilated them into her schema for dogs. One day, Deja sees a sheep for the first time and says, “Look mommy, dog!” Having a basic schema that a dog is an animal with four legs and fur, Deja thinks all furry, four-legged creatures are dogs. When Deja’s mom tells her that the animal she sees is a sheep, not a dog, Deja must accommodate her schema for dogs to include more information based on her new experiences. Deja’s schema for dog was too broad since not all furry, four-legged creatures are dogs. She now modifies her schema for dogs and forms a new one for sheep.

Let’s examine the transition that infants make from responding to the external world reflexively as newborns, to solving problems using mental strategies as two-year-olds. Piaget called this first stage of cognitive development sensorimotor intelligence (the sensorimotor period) because infants learn through their senses and motor skills. He subdivided this period into six substages:

Table 3. Sensorimotor substages.
Stage 1 – ReflexesBirth to 6 weeks
Stage 2 – Primary Circular Reactions6 weeks to 4 months
Stage 3 – Secondary Circular Reactions4 months to 8 months
Stage 4 – Coordination of Secondary Circular Reactions8 months to 12 months
Stage 5 – Tertiary Circular Reactions12 months to 18 months
Stage 6 – Mental Representation18 months to 24 months

Substages of Sensorimotor Intelligence

For an overview of the substages of sensorimotor thought, it helps to group the six substages into pairs. The first two substages involve the infant’s responses to its own body, call primary circular reactions. During the first month first (substage one), the infant’s senses, as well as motor reflexes are the foundation of thought.

Substage One: Reflexive Action (Birth through 1st month)

This active learning begins with automatic movements or reflexes (sucking, grasping, staring, listening). A ball comes into contact with an infant’s cheek and is automatically sucked on and licked. But this is also what happens with a sour lemon, much to the infant’s surprise! The baby’s first challenge is to learn to adapt the sucking reflex to bottles or breasts, pacifiers or fingers, each acquiring specific types of tongue movements to latch, suck, breath, and repeat. This adaptation demonstrates that infants have begun to make sense of sensations. Eventually, the use of these reflexes becomes more deliberate and purposeful as they move onto substage two.

Substage Two: First Adaptations to the Environment (1st through 4th months)

Fortunately, within a few days or weeks, the infant begins to discriminate between objects and adjust responses accordingly as reflexes are replaced with voluntary movements. An infant may accidentally engage in a behavior and find it interesting, such as making a vocalization. This interest motivates trying to do it again and helps the infant learn a new behavior that originally occurred by chance. The behavior is identified as circular and primary because it centers on the infant’s own body. At first, most actions have to do with the body, but in months to come, will be directed more toward objects. For example, the infant may have different sucking motions for hunger and others for comfort (i.e. sucking a pacifier differently from a nipple or attempting to hold a bottle to suck it).

The next two substages (3 and 4), involve the infant’s responses to objects and people, called secondary circular reactions. Reactions are no longer confined to the infant’s body and are now interactions between the baby and something else.

Substage Three: Repetition (4th through 8th months)

During the next few months, the infant becomes more and more actively engaged in the outside world and takes delight in being able to make things happen by responding to people and objects. Babies try to continue any pleasing event. Repeated motion brings particular interest as the infant is able to bang two lids together or shake a rattle and laugh. Another example might be to clap their hands when a caregiver says “patty-cake.” Any sight of something delightful will trigger efforts for interaction.

Substage Four: New Adaptations and Goal-Directed Behavior (8th through 12th months)

Now the infant becomes more deliberate and purposeful in responding to people and objects and can engage in behaviors that others perform and anticipate upcoming events. Babies may ask for help by fussing, pointing, or reaching up to accomplish tasks, and work hard to get what they want. Perhaps because of continued maturation of the prefrontal cortex, the infant becomes capable of having a thought and carrying out a planned, goal-directed activity such as seeking a toy that has rolled under the couch or indicating that they are hungry. The infant is coordinating both internal and external activities to achieve a planned goal and begins to get a sense of social understanding. Piaget believed that at about 8 months (during substage 4), babies first understood the concept of object permanence, which is the realization that objects or people continue to exist when they are no longer in sight.

The last two stages (5 and 6), called tertiary circular reactions, consist of actions (stage 5) and ideas (stage 6) where infants become more creative in their thinking.

Substage Five: Active Experimentation of “Little Scientists” (12th through 18th months)

The toddler is considered a “little scientist” and begins exploring the world in a trial-and-error manner, using motor skills and planning abilities. For example, the child might throw their ball down the stairs to see what happens or delight in squeezing all of the toothpaste out of the tube. The toddler’s active engagement in experimentation helps them learn about their world. Gravity is learned by pouring water from a cup or pushing bowls from high chairs. The caregiver tries to help the child by picking it up again and placing it on the tray. And what happens? Another experiment! The child pushes it off the tray again causing it to fall and the caregiver to pick it up again! A closer examination of this stage causes us to really appreciate how much learning is going on at this time and how many things we come to take for granted must actually be learned. This is a wonderful and messy time of experimentation and most learning occurs by trial and error.

Substage Six: Mental Representations (18th month to 2 years of age)

The child is now able to solve problems using mental strategies, to remember something heard days before and repeat it, to engage in pretend play, and to find objects that have been moved even when out of sight. Take, for instance, the child who is upstairs in a room with the door closed, supposedly taking a nap. The doorknob has a safety device on it that makes it impossible for the child to turn the knob. After trying several times to push the door or turn the doorknob, the child carries out a mental strategy to get the door opened – he knocks on the door! Obviously, this is a technique learned from the past experience of hearing a knock on the door and observing someone opening the door. The child is now better equipped with mental strategies for problem-solving. Part of this stage also involves learning to use language. This initial movement from the “hands-on” approach to knowing about the world to the more mental world of stage six marked the transition to preoperational thinking, which you’ll learn more about in a later module.

Development of Object Permanence

A critical milestone during the sensorimotor period is the development of object permanence. Introduced during substage 4 above, object permanence is the understanding that even if something is out of sight, it continues to exist. The infant is now capable of making attempts to retrieve the object. Piaget thought that, at about 8 months, babies first understand the concept of objective permanence, but some research has suggested that infants seem to be able to recognize that objects have permanence at much younger ages (even as young as 4 months of age). Other researchers, however, are not convinced (Mareschal & Kaufman, 2012). It may be a matter of “grasping vs. mastering” the concept of objective permanence. Overall, we can expect children to grasp the concept that objects continue to exist even when they are not in sight by around 8 months old, but memory may play a factor in their consistency. Because toddlers (i.e., 12–24 months old) have mastered object permanence, they enjoy games like hide-and-seek, and they realize that when someone leaves the room they will come back (Loop, 2013). Toddlers also point to pictures in books and look in the appropriate places when you ask them to find objects.

Memory Abilities in Infants

Memory is central to cognitive development and information processing theories. Our memories form the basis for our sense of self, guide our thoughts and decisions, influence our emotional reactions, and allow us to learn (Bauer, 2008).

It is thought that Piaget underestimated memory ability in infants (Schneider, 2015). This belief came in part from findings that adults rarely recall personal events from before the age of 3 years (a phenomenon that is known as infantile or childhood amnesia). However, research with infants and young children has made it clear that they can and do form memories of events. Infants show evidence of implicit memories early in life. Implicit memories are for automatic processes, like motor skills, whereas explicit memories, those you can consciously recall, develop later (Rovee-Collier, 1997).

As mentioned when discussing the development of infant senses, within the first few weeks of birth, infants recognize their caregivers by face, voice, and smell. Sensory and caregiver memories are apparent in the first month, motor memories by 3 months, and then, at about 9 months, more complex memories including language (Mullally & Maguire, 2014). There is an agreement that memory is fragile in the first months of life, but that improves with age. Repeated sensations and brain maturation are required in order to process and recall events (Bauer, 2008). Infants remember things that happened weeks and months ago (Mullally & Maguire, 2014), although they most likely will not remember it decades later. From the cognitive perspective, this has been explained by the idea that the lack of linguistic skills of babies and toddlers limit their ability to mentally represent events; thereby, reducing their ability to encode memory. Moreover, even if infants do form such early memories, older children and adults may not be able to access them because they may be employing very different, more linguistically based, retrieval cues than infants used when forming the memory.

Language Development

Given the remarkable complexity of a language, one might expect that mastering a language would be an especially arduous task; indeed, for those of us trying to learn a second language as adults, this might seem to be true. However, young children master language very quickly with relative ease. B. F. Skinner (1957) proposed that language is learned through reinforcement. Noam Chomsky (1965) criticized this behaviorist approach, asserting instead that the mechanisms underlying language acquisition are biologically determined. The use of language develops in the absence of formal instruction and appears to follow a very similar pattern in children from vastly different cultures and backgrounds. It would seem, therefore, that we are born with a biological predisposition to acquire a language (Chomsky, 1965; Fernández & Cairns, 2011). Moreover, it appears that there is a critical period for language acquisition, such that this proficiency at acquiring language is maximal early in life; generally, as people age, the ease with which they acquire and master new languages diminishes (Johnson & Newport, 1989; Lenneberg, 1967; Singleton, 1995).

Children begin to learn about language from a very early age (Table 4). In fact, it appears that this is occurring even before we are born. Newborns show a preference for their mother’s voice and appear to be able to discriminate between the language spoken by their mother and other languages. Babies are also attuned to the languages being used around them and show preferences for videos of faces that are moving in synchrony with the audio of spoken language versus videos that do not synchronize with the audio (Blossom & Morgan, 2006; Pickens, 1994; Spelke & Cortelyou, 1981).

Table 4. Milestones of Language and Communication Development
AgeDevelopmental Language and Communication
NewbornReflexive communication (e.g., cries)
to 3 monthsCooing
4–6 monthsInterest in others; begins babbling
7–12 monthsUnderstands common words; gestures
12–18 monthsFirst words
18–24 monthsSimple sentences of two words
2–3 yearsSentences of three or more words
3–5 yearsComplex sentences; has conversations

Each language has its own set of phonemes, the smallest unit of sound to make a meaningful difference to a word. Phonemes are used to generate morphemes, the smallest units of meaning within words. Babies can discriminate among the sounds that make up a language (for example, they can tell the difference between the “s” in vision and the “ss” in fission). Before 9 months, they can differentiate between the sounds of all human languages! This is something that older children and adults cannot do. By the time that they are about 1 year old, they start to specialize in the languages they hear and they can only discriminate among those phonemes that are used in the language(s) in their environments (Jensen, 2011; Werker & Lalonde, 1988; Werker & Tees, 1984).

Infant Communication

Wide-eyed baby boy.
Figure 6. Before they develop language, infants communicate using facial expressions.

Intentional Vocalizations

Infants begin to vocalize and repeat vocalizations within the first couple of months of life. That gurgling, musical vocalization called cooing can serve as a source of entertainment to an infant who has been laid down for a nap or seated in a carrier on a car ride. Cooing serves as practice for vocalization. It also allows the infant to hear the sound of their own voice and try to repeat sounds that are entertaining. Infants also begin to learn the pace and pause of conversation as they alternate their vocalization with that of someone else and then take their turn again when the other person’s vocalization has stopped. Cooing initially involves making vowel sounds like “oooo.” Later, as the baby moves into babbling (see below), consonants are added to vocalizations such as “nananananana.”

Babbling and Gesturing

Between 6 and 9 months, infants begin making even more elaborate vocalizations that include the sounds required for any language. Guttural sounds, clicks, consonants, and vowel sounds stand ready to equip the child with the ability to repeat whatever sounds are characteristic of the language heard. These babies repeat certain syllables (ma-ma-ma, da-da-da, ba-ba-ba), a vocalization called babbling because of the way it sounds. Eventually, these sounds will no longer be used as the infant grows more accustomed to a particular language. Deaf babies also use gestures to communicate wants, reactions, and feelings. Because gesturing seems to be easier than vocalization for some toddlers, sign language is sometimes taught to enhance one’s ability to communicate by making use of the ease of gesturing. The rhythm and pattern of language are used when deaf babies sign just as when hearing babies babble.

At around ten months of age, infants can understand more than they can say. You may have experienced this phenomenon as well if you have ever tried to learn a second language. You may have been able to follow a conversation more easily than to contribute to it.

Holophrastic Speech

Children begin using their first words at about 12 or 13 months of age and may use partial words to convey thoughts at even younger ages. These one-word expressions are referred to as holophrastic speech (holophrase). For example, the child may say “ju” for the word “juice” and use this sound when referring to a bottle. The listener must interpret the meaning of the holophrase. When this is someone who has spent time with the child, interpretation is not too difficult. They know that “ju” means “juice” which means the baby wants some milk! But, someone who has not been around the child will have trouble knowing what is meant. Imagine the parent who exclaims to a friend, “Ezra’s talking all the time now!” The friend hears only “ju da ga” which, the parent explains, means “I want some milk when I go with Daddy.”

First words and cultural influences

The first words for English-speaking children tend to be nouns. The child labels objects such as a cup or a ball. In a verb-friendly language such as Chinese or Korean, however, children may learn more verbs (Choi & Gopnik, 2008). This may also be due to the different emphasis given to objects based on culture. Chinese children may be taught to notice action and relationships between objects while children from the United States may be taught to name an object and its qualities (color, texture, size, etc.). These differences can be seen when comparing interpretations of art by older students from China and the United States.

Vocabulary growth spurt

One-year-olds typically have a vocabulary of about 50 words. But by the time they become toddlers, they have a vocabulary of about 200 words and begin putting those words together in telegraphic speech (short phrases). This language growth spurt is called the naming explosion because many early words are nouns (persons, places, or things).

Two-word sentences and telegraphic speech

Words are soon combined and 18-month-old toddlers can express themselves further by using phrases such as “baby bye-bye” or “doggie pretty.” Words needed to convey messages are used, but the articles and other parts of speech necessary for grammatical correctness are not yet included. These expressions sound like a telegraph (or perhaps a better analogy today would be that they read like a text message) where unnecessary words are not used. “Give baby ball” is used rather than “Give the baby the ball.” Or a text message of “Send money now!” rather than “Dear Mother. I really need some money to take care of my expenses.” You get the idea.

Child-directed speech

Why is a horse a “horsie”? Have you ever wondered why adults tend to use “baby talk” or that sing-song type of intonation and exaggeration used when talking to children? This represents a universal tendency and is known as child-directed speech or motherese or parentese. It involves exaggerating the vowel and consonant sounds, using a high-pitched voice, and delivering the phrase with great facial expression. Why is this done? It may be in order to clearly articulate the sounds of a word so that the child can hear the sounds involved. Or it may be because when this type of speech is used, the infant pays more attention to the speaker and this sets up a pattern of interaction in which the speaker and listener are in tune with one another. When I demonstrate this in class, the students certainly pay attention and look my way. Amazing! It also works in the college classroom!

Theories of Language Development

How is language learned? Each major theory of language development emphasizes different aspects of language learning: that infants’ brains are genetically attuned to language, that infants must be taught and that infants’ social impulses foster language learning. The first two theories of language development represent two extremes in the level of interaction required for language to occur (Berk, 2007).

Chomsky and the language acquisition device

This theory posits that infants teach themselves and that language learning is genetically programmed. The view is known as nativism and was advocated by Noam Chomsky, who suggested that infants are equipped with a neurological construct referred to as the language acquisition device (LAD), which makes infants ready for language. The LAD allows children, as their brains develop, to derive the rules of grammar quickly and effectively from the speech they hear every day. Therefore, language develops as long as the infant is exposed to it. No teaching, training, or reinforcement is required for language to develop. Instead, language learning comes from a particular gene, brain maturation, and the overall human impulse to imitate.

Skinner and reinforcement

This theory is the opposite of Chomsky’s theory because it suggests that infants need to be taught language. This idea arises from behaviorism. Learning theorist, B. F. Skinner, suggested that language develops through the use of reinforcement. Sounds, words, gestures, and phrases are encouraged by following the behavior with attention, words of praise, treats, or anything that increases the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. This repetition strengthens associations, so infants learn the language faster as parents speak to them often. For example, when a baby says “ma-ma,” the mother smiles and repeats the sound while showing the baby attention. So, “ma-ma” is repeated due to this reinforcement.

Social pragmatics

Another language theory emphasizes the child’s active engagement in learning the language out of a need to communicate. Social impulses foster infant language because humans are social beings and we must communicate because we are dependent on each other for survival. The child seeks information, memorizes terms, imitates the speech heard from others and learns to conceptualize using words as language is acquired. Tomasello and Herrmann (2010) argue that all human infants, as opposed to chimpanzees, seek to master words and grammar in order to join the social world. Many would argue that all three of these theories (Chomsky’s argument for nativism, conditioning, and social pragmatics) are important for fostering the acquisition of language (Berger, 2004).

Moral Reasoning in Infants

The Foundation of Moral Reasoning in Infants

Young baby, around 6 months old, doing tummy time and looking happily at the camera.
Figure 7. Maybe babies know more than we think they do!

The work of Lawrence Kohlberg was an important start to modern research on moral development and reasoning. However, Kohlberg relied on a specific method: he presented moral dilemmas and asked children and adults to explain what they would do and—more importantly—why they would act in that particular way. Kohlberg found that children tended to make choices based on avoiding punishment and gaining praise. But children are at a disadvantage compared to adults when they must rely on language to convey their inner thoughts and emotional reactions, so what they say may not adequately capture the complexity of their thinking.

Starting in the 1980s, developmental psychologists created new methods for studying the thought processes of children and infants long before they acquire language. One particularly effective method is to present children with puppet shows to grab their attention and then record nonverbal behaviors, such as looking and choosing, to identify children’s preferences or interests.

A research group at Yale University has been using the puppet show technique to study the moral thinking of children for much of the past decade. What they have discovered has given us a glimpse of surprisingly complex thought processes that may serve as the foundation of moral reasoning.

Remember that Lawrence Kohlberg thought that children at this age—and, in fact, through 9 years of age—are primarily motivated to avoid punishment and seek rewards. Neither Kohlberg nor Carol Gilligan nor Jean Piaget was likely to predict that infants as young as 3-months would show preferences for moral behavior. Check out this video from 60 Minutes with a look inside the Yale Baby Lab.

This content is provided to you freely by BYU-I Books.

Access it online or download it at https://books.byui.edu/developmental_psychology/42_cognitive_growth_in_infancy.