Cognitive Development in 0-2 Year Olds

Learn about the rapid developmental growth that occurs in a baby's first year, especially, children's thinking abilities, or cognition.

By Michelle Anthony, PhD



Cognitive Development in 0-2 Year Olds

There is a staggering amount of change, across all areas of development, between when a baby is born and when that same child turns 3. Seemingly helpless at birth, babies enter the world with a system of abilities and responses that lay the foundation for future abilities and skill sets. Babies are born with cognitive skills that allow them to recognize and respond to their caregivers. For example, they are able and ready to immediately hook the caregiver into a relationship with them — to get those who keep them healthy and alive connected to them immediately. The skills that let them do this are their visual fixed focal length (about the distance from breast to caregiver’s face), their ability to perceive high contrasts and contours (allowing outlines of things like a face to be defined), their orientation to human voices over other sounds, and their ability to recognize a familiar voice by the time they are a week old. In addition, they are able to recognize the smell of their own mother’s milk.

From birth until they turn 2, children are in what famous developmental researcher Jean Piaget calls the sensorimotor period. During this time, children use their senses and actions to learn and grow. This period begins with basic reflexes and advances through a series of “stages” to complex sensory and motor skills, and early symbolic thought. For games to play throughout the first year that will support cognition, try some of these ideas.

According to Piaget, during the sensorimotor period, children’s thoughts and understandings are limited to things they can directly perceive or do, as illustrated below in the chart by Dr. Kirsten Blount-Matthews, Professor of Psychology at Harper College:

While playing hands-on with your baby is always the best way to connect, sharing games or images online allows you to diversify the kinds of interactions you and your baby share. Be sure to talk to your child and engage her with meaningful questions or playful interactions as you and your baby explore baby-focused cognitive games that encourage sorting, peekaboo, and cause and effect understanding.

By the end of the sensorimotor period (between 18-24 months), your child learns that she is separate from her environment and that objects continue to exist even when they are not perceivable (object permanence). At this age, your toddler is developing mental representation (creating and storing mental images), as evidenced by his ability to engage in deferred imitation (throwing a tantrum after seeing one at daycare earlier in the day, for instance). Your child will demonstrate intentional thinking and insight, is able to use mental combinations to problem solve (e.g., know to move a chair to their crib to reach in for their blankie), and is beginning to pretend (e.g., use a block as a cracker to feed a doll) — all hallmarks of the transition from sensorimotor to preoperational thinking.

The limits of what sensorimotor children can do has been proven in countless experiments since Piaget first documented them. However, recent research has also identified strengths and abilities not previously noted. For example, researchers have found that even very young babies can show surprise (by looking longer) at unexpected events (such as a screen that seems to fall through an object it hides). Longer looking time in these situations indicates that babies have some expectation that objects continue to exist when hidden by a screen, and therefore have some ability to form abstract representations from birth (contrary to what Piaget initially documented). While there is debate about what forms these representations take, and the extent to which children can utilize them, researchers now believe that babies build off foundations of learning that they are born with. In addition, they continue to learn about the world through observation in addition to sensorimotor actions.

Preoperational Thinking
Sometime between 18-24 months, children enter Piaget’s second stage — the preoperational stage. This stage, which lasts from about 2 to about 6-years-old, is the time during which children learn to use symbols and representational thinking, such as language. At the onset of the preoperational period, children cannot yet use concrete logic nor take the perspective of another. They demonstrate egocentricism, where they believe that their thoughts are shared by others. These limitations notwithstanding, the time from 2 to 3 is another explosion of learning and thinking. Children are able to respond to simple directions, group objects by category, imitate more complex actions and show increasingly vivid use of the imagination. The time between 2 and 3 marks the transition from baby or toddler to preschooler! 

Stages & Milestones
Cognitive Skills
Age 1
Age 2
Child Development and Behavior
Learning and Cognitive Development