Learning to think: The next six months

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Learn about cognitive development, or the ability to think, over the second six months of a baby's first year. Attempts at speech are to be expected.

Key points

  • In the next six months, your baby will begin to understand desires and goals, develop stranger anxiety, learn how to solve problems and understand the meaning of some basic phrases.

Over the next six months, your baby's cognitive development will continue to grow at an astonishing pace. Follow your baby's lead when it comes to their interests and continue to help them grow their cognitive functioning.

Months seven and eight

Starting in the second half of your baby’s first year, they may start to acquire a theory of mind, which is an understanding that people have desires and goals, think, know things, make plans, and experience emotions. They may start to understand intentionality, which is when people act in ways to achieve their goals. They will begin to learn that people have different ways of interacting with other people, as opposed to inanimate objects. They will start to realize that with people you communicate and with things you manipulate.

Your baby’s understanding of intentionality is still just emerging at this point, and it is quite primitive and limited. For example, they do not understand that someone could intentionally thwart their goal. If they become angry, it is "anger in the moment," not "anger at someone."

Your baby is probably uncomfortable around strangers now, and their stranger anxiety is developing at a rapid pace. This is because they not only can tell the difference between people they know and those they don’t know, but they have also developed the sense of fear. Your baby much prefers being around people they are familiar with, and they save most of their affection for you. If you need to leave your baby with someone they don’t know, you can help to ease their discomfort by giving them time to get used to the stranger. Let them know that you are comfortable around the new person, and it will help to reduce your baby’s anxiety.

Stranger anxiety will activate your baby’s system of attachment, and they will show this by trying to stay physically close to you and their other caregivers. They will show a strong preference for you and other caregivers when they feel afraid, distressed, sad, frustrated, or in pain. They will not be easily consoled by anyone else. Although this may be frustrating for you, attachment is a healthy sign of your baby’s social and emotional development.

Months nine and 10

Your baby may become quite adept at carrying out repetitive motions, such as picking up a toy in one hand and passing it to the other hand before dropping it in a pail beside them.

They are also learning how to solve problems by themselves. In the past, if they wanted to do something like put a block in a bucket, they might have given up in frustration. Now, they will keep trying and experimenting until they can do it for themselves. Your baby can also remember any past solutions that they came up with to solve problems. They can draw upon those past experiences to solve new problems, and this is a major accomplishment.

Your baby’s understanding of intentionality continues to improve. Around this age, if you withdraw a toy intentionally, in a teasing way as they are reaching for it, they may become impatient, bang on the table, or look away from you in frustration. However, if you drop their toy in a seemingly clumsy and unintentional way, they will respond with more patience. Your baby is starting to understand that someone could intentionally thwart their goals, and they can experience "anger at someone." Although their understanding of intentionality is still quite primitive, it is a necessary first step for something else called joint attention.

Joint attention is your baby’s ability to coordinate their attention with a social partner’s attention. After about nine months of age, your baby will be able to follow the attention of another person. They can point to an object and make sure you follow their gaze and look at what they are pointing to. They will use pointing not only as a gesture to ask for what they want, but also will point to something, perhaps a train passing by, to "point it out," simply to share their interest with you. Joint attention is very important to early language learning. While most babies only speak a few words until 18 months of age, they learn to understand what is said to them well before then.

Months 11 and 12

Your baby may say their first words during these months. They use many clues to help them understand the meaning of words. Gestures, body language, and the person’s tone of speech all help a baby learn what different words mean. Toward the end of their first year, your baby may be able to say a few words, but they will probably understand up to 100 more. They may also understand the meaning of phrases such as "Where is your shoe?" This is a new level of communication, with words, but remember that you and your baby have been communicating throughout their entire first year of life!

By the end of their first year, your baby will be able to sort toys in a very basic way, such as by colour or shape. Also, much as you may try to keep your baby’s toys and experiences gender-neutral, you may notice them leaning toward gender-specific toys. Girls this age tend to lean toward stuffed animals and other cuddly toys, and boys toward action toys.

By the time your baby is one year of age, their ability to detect contingency provides them with a sense of control over what they are doing. One study used a mechanical monkey toy to illustrate this. In one group of 12-month-olds, the toy moved and made a loud noise if the baby did a specific behaviour. In the other group, the toy moved and made noise randomly, regardless of what the baby did. The babies in the group that was allowed to control the monkey responded with joy, while the babies in the other group cried and were fearful. Therefore, when the babies in the first group realized that what they did triggered the toy to make a particular movement and noise each and every time, they felt more in control; that allowed them to enjoy the exciting toy.

Responding to your baby’s communication signals in a contingent way can help enhance their cognitive and social development. Here are a few tips on responding in a contingent manner with your baby:

  • When playing with your baby, track their attention and follow their lead. Focus your attention, comments, and requests on what your baby is doing. If your baby receives a new toy and is more interested in playing with the box than the toy, that is okay! Respect their interest and allow them to explore the box all they want.
  • Respond to your baby’s cues promptly and appropriately. If your baby points to something, look at it and make a comment about it. If your baby pushes away a toy you present to them, say something like "You don’t want that one? OK, let’s find something else to play with!"
  • Use a pace that matches their ability and patience. Your baby likes to do things over and over again. Try to be patient and allow them to do this, rather than rushing to show them something new.
  • Refrain from making comments or requests that are not related to your baby’s focus of interest. For example, if your baby is thoroughly enjoying banging on a pot with a wooden spoon, don’t pick that moment to ask them "Where is your shoe?" Instead, comment on the beautiful music!
  • Do not introduce a new toy or activity until your baby signals that they are ready to move on.
  • Help your baby to play with toys in new ways, but do not be physically intrusive or abrupt.
  • Try not to restrict or interfere with your baby’s engagement in an activity as long as it is safe for baby and not destructive to your home.
Last updated: September 21st 2009