Cognitive Developmental Milestones from Birth to Age 2

This is the second of a series of articles on child development from birth to 2 years. To read the first article click hereChild development is not an exact science. Every infant grows and develops at its own pace. However the information about cognitive development provided in this article are a useful reference for every new parent.

By cognition or cognitive abilities psychologists mean the interaction of all the perceptive, intellectual and linguistic abilities involved in thinking and learning.

1. Sensomotor intelligence

Piaget believed that children actively seek to understand the world and develop an understanding that reflects specific cognitive stages related to their age. This process starts from birth and grows rapidly in the first few months of life. Piaget called the first period of cognitive development 'the sensorimotor stage of cognitive intelligence'.

The observations of infants' cognition by Piaget is regarded as correct by child psychologists. Numerous studies conducted on hundreds of children have replicated the outcome of Piaget's obersations of his own 3 children.

- The six stages of sensorimotor intelligence

According to Piaget, sensorimotor intelligence develops through six sub-stages, that are characterized by the development of a new skill:

  • Reflexes (0-1 month): sensorimotor intelligence begins with the newborn's reflexes, such as sucking, grasping, watching and listening. Through the repeated exercise of these reflexes, newborn babies acquire information about the world, which will be used to develop the next stage of learning.
  • Primary Circular Reactions (1-4 months): at about 1 month babies show signs of adaptation to their environment and at 3 months they have organized their world distinguishing, for example, between the objects that cause them pleasure with sucking and those that cause them to feel frustrated.
  • Secondary Circular Reactions (4-8 months): at 4 months infants acquire greater awareness of objects and other people and begin to recognise some of the specific characteristics of the objects in his environment.
  • Coordination of Reactions (8-12 months): by 8 months babies become able to anticipate other people's actions and their behaviour becomes finalized to reaching a goal. In this phase children acquire the skill of object permanence. Object permanence means knowing that an object still exists, even if it is hidden.
  • Tertiary Circular Reactions (12-18 months): during this phase children begin a period of trial-and-error experimentation. Children becomes an active explorer of the world around them.
  • Early Representational Thought (18-24 months): during this sub-stage begins to use mental representations before taking actions.

2. Language acquisition

Most children speak their first word between 10 to 14 months of age. By 2 years, children present with a mastery of language and growth of vocabulary which is often surprising for their young age.

There are two psychological theories about how children acquire language. Skinner thoughts that children acquire language through reinforcement and association. Chomsky, on the other hand, believed that children have an innate ability to understand and use the fundamental structure of language. Each culture then teaches children the particular structures, such as vocabulary and grammar, of their specific language. Both theories are regarded as true because children are genetically predisposed to learning language, however external factors are crucial to their ability to develop  language skills.

Language acquisition is the result of parent-child interaction. Child is predisposed to learn the language and adults all over the world communicate with their children using a simplified form of language, called baby talk, which adapts to the child's ability to understand and repeat.

- The stages of language development

Children all over the world follow the same sequence in developing language skills. The first area in which they become competent is the function of language, the communication of ideas and emotions. Within the first two years of life this ability to communicate evolves into an impressive mastery of their native language structure.

  • Cries and vocalizations: Children produce a variety of sounds since birth. These noises gradually become shrieks, mutterings, murmurs and shouts. Then suddenly, at 6 or 7 months, the sounds begin to include the repetition of certain syllables a phenomenon called lallation.
  • Gestures: During the child's lallation period, babies start showing gestures to communicate their needs. Indicative gestures are often the first gestures to be used. By 9 months children begin to indicate objects, vocalize and become able to give an object to an adult. By 12 months children start to display other gestures, usually modeled on those of the people who look after them.
  • Understanding: At every stage of development, children understand much more than they are able to express. Naturally, the context and people's tone of voice strongly contribute to making sense of the world around them.
  • First words: At about 1 year a child on average says one or two words, not pronounced very clearly and not used very precisely. Vocabulary increases gradually, by some words per month. At 18 months children say about fifty words and understand many more. From now on a child's acquisition of words rapidly increases by a hundred or more words per month. The child applies the few words he knows to a wide range of contexts. This characteristic, known as hypertension, can cause a child to call "ball" anything with a round shape, or to call "dog" all four-legged animals.
  • The first combinations of words: About six months after children pronounced their first words, they begin to combine words with each other. This new ability requires a great language mastery, because in most languages word order affects meaning.

The next article in this series will focus on children's psychosocial development from birth to age 2.

The International Psychology Clinic

The International Psychology Clinic