November 9, 2023

Understanding How Babies Learn: The Three Main Stages of Cognitive Development of a Baby

Understanding How Babies Learn: The Three Main Stages of Cognitive Development of a Baby

We often associate learning with adult life. But did you know babies are incredible little beings who start learning actively right from birth? Their minds are constantly working, helping them to reason and think. The growth of these abilities is called ‘cognitive development’, and it lays the foundation for learning and success later in their lives.

By understanding what affects cognitive processes in babies, you can help your little ones reach their full potential and ensure that your child turns out to be a well-rounded individual.

Let’s dive right in and understand what affects cognitive development in early childhood and what you can do to help them achieve higher cognitive abilities.

Decoding Cognitive Development in Children

Children exhibit rapid growth in the initial years of their lives. The key areas of development include communication, physical development and gross motor skills, language, social and emotional growth, and cognitive development.

Let’s understand more about the fifth developmental area, known as cognitive development. It means how the child thinks, absorbs, explores, and figures out the meaning of things around them. Cognitive skills also include abilities such as memory, attention, response to stimuli, recognition of patterns, and understanding cause and effect relationships. For instance, when children attempt to speak, stack their toys, or react to sounds and images, they exhibit their cognitive abilities. 

In the rapidly developing and competitive world of today, the basic processes of cognitive development are crucial to hone their abilities as adults. Cognitive development in early childhood has long-term benefits for children. It helps them develop problem-solving skills, which are especially important while managing families and work. Clear comprehension is another outcome of proper cognitive development. This helps them assess situations correctly and respond accordingly. Children can also develop a habit of lifelong learning, which helps them become productive contributors to society. Cognitive abilities also instil innovation and challenge children to devise uncommon solutions to problems later on in life.

Now let’s look at the main factors that affect cognitive development in babies.

What are the Main Factors That Affect Cognitive Development in Babies?

According to The BMC Public Health Journal, the cognitive development of a baby is a result of several stimuli. These include:

  1. Biological factors, such as proper sensory organ development and hereditary traits.
  2. Environmental factors include opportunities for learning, the family’s economic status, parental involvement in the child’s development, and exposure to play activities.

To gain a better understanding of how babies think and process information, let’s delve deeper into the three stages of cognitive development in babies.

Three Stages of Cognitive Development in Babies

Babies undergo significant changes in their cognitive abilities as they grow. Jean Piaget, a renowned Swiss psychologist who specialised in child development, identified four main processes of cognitive development in children. However, this article will focus on the first three stages of cognitive development, as the fourth stage pertains to children aged 12 years and above. Let’s take a closer look at these three stages to better understand a baby’s cognitive development.

Stage 1 (0-2 years): Sensorimotor Stage

This is the first stage in the three processes of cognitive development. In this stage, you can expect your baby to exhibit specific movements and reflexes. These include:

  • Babies start using their reflexes. Your baby will start smiling, touching, and sucking on everything they can get their little hands on.
  • As your baby gains more control over their movements, you’ll see them doing coordinated circular reactions, like crawling towards their favourite toys and giggling with delight as they play.
  • Their tertiary reactions may include responding to directions, answering simple questions, and listening intently to songs and stories.
  • You will observe that your child will begin to understand that people and things exist without them being able to see them. This is known as ‘object permanence’. This can be observed when your baby searches for a toy that you have hidden or when they look for you when you leave the room, showing that they understand you still exist even when they can’t see you.

Stage 2 (2-7 years): Preoperational Stage

This is the stage when babies start to make sense of the world around them, including the relationships they have with others. Here are some things you might observe during this process of cognitive development:

  • Centration: This means that they will mainly focus on one thing at a time. For instance, they might get really into playing with a toy and ignore everything else around them, even the delicious snack you’re trying to offer them.
  • Conservation: While your child becomes a genius at concentrating, they might not fully grasp the concept of conservation yet. For example, if you pour their juice from a short, wide glass into a tall, skinny glass, they might think there is more juice in the second glass, even though the amount is the same.
  • Egocentrism: You will see signs of egocentrism where they only think about themselves and assume that you see and feel the same things that they do.
  • Symbolic Thinking: Babies realise that words are symbolic of people or things. For example, they may use their toy phone as an actual phone.
  • Animism: At this age, children often think everything has a purpose or was created by someone or something. They tend to give lifelike qualities, such as feelings and thoughts, to inanimate objects like teddy bears and leaves.
  • Irreversibility: Your child might think that once something has happened, it can’t be undone. For example, if they break a toy, they might think it’s gone forever and can never be fixed.

Stage 3 (7-11 years): Concrete Operational Stage

This stage, amongst the 3 main factors of cognitive development, is characterised by the fact that though children start thinking rationally, the scope of their thinking is limited to physical objects.

You will begin to see specific indicators such as:

  • Classification behaviour, which means they will start categorising things into categories and sub-categories.
  • They will exhibit reversibility or an understanding that things and actions can be reversed. For example, if they spill their juice, they might grab a towel and try to mop it up to reverse the spill.
  • They can sort things in order, such as the thinnest or tallest. For example, they might line up their toys from smallest to largest or stack blocks from biggest to smallest.
  • Another important aspect of this stage is that your child will move away from egocentrism. Your child will start to see things from other people’s perspectives and not just their own. They might ask you questions about what you’re doing or how you’re feeling and try to understand it from your point of view.

What can You Do to Boost Your Baby’s Cognitive Development?

Now that you know the three processes of cognitive development, it is also important to know that as parents and primary caregivers, you can help your child meet these milestones.

Here are some simple yet effective ways in which you can impact their attention span, memory, and perceptions:

  • A University of Washington study says that babies begin learning languages while in the womb! To nurture this incredible ability, try talking to your little one frequently. This helps them recognise your voice and language, setting the foundation for strong communication skills.
  • To encourage a love for exploration and communication, create a home environment where your child feels safe and confident to be themselves.
  • Encouraging curiosity and experimentation is key to helping your child learn and grow. Rather than scolding them for asking questions or trying new things, try showering them with praise and positive reinforcement.
  • Engage your child in activities such as puzzles, play, sequencing, reading, and board games. These are great ways to challenge them and instil multisensory development.


Paying attention to cognitive processes in babies early on paves the way for their success later in life. Now that you have a better understanding of the factors that influence cognitive development consider incorporating them into your daily routine.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to enhance your child’s cognitive skills, we at Raising Superstars offer many activity-based screen-free programmes, specifically designed for cognitive development among babies. Sign up for our prodigy programmes to enhance your child’s cognitive skills while encouraging them to have fun.

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