Learning to Think: Cognitive Development

Asian grandpa with baby

What is cognitive development?

Cognitive development is the development of your baby’s abilities to see, hear, touch, feel, taste, and smell; to remember and learn; to understand language and then to say words; and to think. All of these processes take place in your baby’s brain, which undergoes tremendous development during the first year of life.

Your baby is constantly learning. Even in the womb, she was taking note of her surroundings and storing memories of events that occurred over and over again. Studies have shown that newborn babies can tell the difference between their mother’s amniotic fluid and someone else’s amniotic fluid. Newborns prefer the sound of their mother’s voice over that of another person.

Babies tend to live in the here and now because their memory capacity is limited and they are not able to sustain their attention. Newborns and young babies are easily distracted because they live "in the moment." Over the first year, your baby’s memory capacity will grow.

Right from the beginning of life, your baby is very sensitive to contingency, meaning that she notices when one event consistently follows another event closely in time. For example, she will figure out that the sound of your voice is usually followed by you picking up and holding her. She will notice that if she cries, she will soon hear you approaching.

Also from the start, your baby will begin to acquire a sense of self, that her body is separate from others. She will start to develop proprioception, which is a sense of where the parts of her body are in space and in relation to the other parts of her body. Try touching your nose with your finger with your eyes closed: the ability to locate the parts of your body in space is proprioception. Of course, your baby cannot do this yet; it will take some time. It is very important to your baby to know where she is in space, and to feel secure in that space. This is why, if you are jumpy when you hold your baby, she may feel insecure and start to become upset.   

There is a continuing controversy about how much of a baby’s ability to learn is because of the internal wiring in her brain, and how much is due to learning through experience. There is also some disagreement with regard to when a baby acquires specific cognitive abilities. Some scientists think cognitive development in babies occurs in stages, and others think it is a more gradual, continuous process.

Researchers do agree on two things, though. First, the initial 12 months of life is a time of great learning, and a baby’s interactions with her caregivers is crucial to her cognitive development. Second, in a baby’s first year, many neural connections in the brain are wired together and some connections are lost; the creation and "pruning back" of these connections are affected by a baby’s experiences.

Babies cannot tell us what they are thinking. As a result, researchers have used careful observation of baby behaviour to try to figure out what is going on in babies’ minds. The pages in this section provide a general month-by-month description of what cognitive abilities a baby acquires in the first year of life. However, it is important to keep in mind that every baby develops at her own pace.

Joanne Cummings, PhD, CPsych