The Psychological Development of Infants

Since infants can't tell us how they feel or what they think, it's difficult to know exactly how much they understand and what their emotions are. But through observation, researchers have learned quite a lot about the infant's mind. Since we learn more in our first few years than we will in the rest of our lives, infants and toddlers undergo rapid psychological development. In their first year alone, babies develop from helpless newborns who subside on reflexes and instincts into lively toddlers with personalities and abilities to communicate.

The Psychological Development of Infants
The Psychological Development of Infants (Jani Bryson/iStock/Getty Images)
Recognition and Memory

Newborns are capable of recognizing certain visual patterns, including the human face, and can recognize their parents when they see them soon after birth. They are also equipped with a predilection for certain sounds, including the human voice. Between 4 and 7 months, babies can recognize the difference between strangers and people they know, and many begin to feel stranger anxiety. According to BabyCenter, the hippocampus (the part of the brain that controls memory) is about 40 percent mature at birth, 50 percent mature at 6 weeks and fully mature by 18 months. Some researchers believe that newborns have the ability to remember, and some argue that a baby can remember his mother's smell at 10 days old. Around 1 month, an infant can remember routines, such as the time of day he usually eats, and expect a feeding at that time. By 4 months, a baby can recognize his main caregiver in a crowd, and by 7 months, he can remember simple sequences, like how the jack-in-the-box will pop up when the music ends.

Newborns can recognize their parents early on.
Newborns can recognize their parents early on. (Catherine Yeulet/iStock/Getty Images)

As early as a few weeks, newborns understand tone of voice, and a crying infant will become soothed by a calm, even-toned voice, and more distressed by a loud, angry-sounding voice. Babies use their senses to take in information about the world around them every waking moment. Although they can't interpret what they take in for the first few months, they are storing up knowledge to help them do this later. As young infants become capable of perceptual judgments involving distance, direction, shape and depth, they are soon able to organize their observations in their mind, which allows them to categorize objects and understand the differences between things that they see (e.g., people, animals, furniture). This helps them to understand the world around them. Around 6 months, they understand the concept of object permanence, which means that objects still exist even if they can't see or hear them. As babies become more mobile, they begin to develop problem-solving skills, such as how to get to the toy they want, and their growing banks of observation and memory help them understand cause and effect. Little ones learn about the world best through experience, and their "playtime" is actually curious exploration that helps them understand what things are and how they work.

Newborns learn best through experience.
Newborns learn best through experience. (pojoslaw/iStock/Getty Images)
Emotional Development

Babies show their first real smiles around 2 months and laugh as early as 4 months. Infants as young as 3 months display behavioral reactions that suggest emotional states such as surprise, distress, relaxation and excitement. In the first year, babies develop more emotions, such as anger, sadness and fear. Infants' emotional lives are centered on their interactions with caregivers. Through the examples they see during these interactions, they learn to love, trust and depend on other human beings. Babies also learn about emotions through observation. By observing your tone of voice and expression when you speak, they learn to understand how you feel and what you're thinking, and they start to react accordingly around 4 or 5 months. When you sound happy, they smile; when you speak sharply to them, they might become distressed or cry. By 6 months, most babies enjoy the response they elicit from their caregiver, and they come to understand that they can communicate through means other than crying, such as smiling, laughing and gesturing.

Babies begin to smile at 2 months.
Babies begin to smile at 2 months. (Marc Debnam/Digital Vision/Getty Images)
Language Development

According to BabyCenter, babies start listening to their parents' voices in the womb, and are able to recognize their mother's voice before birth. Infants learn about language from what they hear around them. Newborns' only means of communication is crying, which they use to express their need for something. Around 3 months, babies are able to make gurgling sounds to express pleasure, and soon they start babbling to initiate a primitive form of conversation. By 6 months, they learn to communicate through other methods, such as smiling, laughing and waving. Also around 6 months, babies learn to recognize names, including their own as well as some of the words commonly spoken to them, such as "mommy," "daddy," "bottle" or "bye-bye." Between 8 and 12 months, they begin to understand simple requests, such as "no" or "stop," and simple sentences like "Do you want to eat now?" Between 12 and 15 months, they should understand simple instructions, such as "Bring me your shoes." By 18 months, they should be able to follow two-part directions like "Pick up the blocks and put them in the basket."

Babies recognize their mothers voice before birth.
Babies recognize their mothers voice before birth. (Kati Molin/iStock/Getty Images)

As infants become more mobile, they begin to exhibit behaviors that show their independent desires. A baby's world is centered on himself, and they behave in ways to show what they need or want, from newborns whose main concern is eating (even if that means waking you up at 2 a.m), to toddlers who insist upon having it their way (even if that means throwing themselves on the floor in the grocery store). This isn't because they're selfish, it's because they haven't yet learned empathy, which won't happen until they are at least age 4. As infants learn about the world around them, a lot of their behavior centers on curiosity (What will happen if I throw this toy across the room?) and sensory development (What does the water in the toilet bowl feel like?). Also, they often test others' responses to their behavior (What will Mommy do if I throw my food on the floor?), and are likely to repeat the behavior to see if it has the same effect the next time.

Babies like to test others' responses to their behavior.
Babies like to test others' responses to their behavior. (LuminaStock/iStock/Getty Images)
Social Development

Babies develop socially through watching the interactions of those around them. Little ones learn best by example, and will learn to treat others the way they see their family members treat each other. Around 7 or 8 months, an infant begins to understand that he is a separate being from his main caregiver, and this is why they often attach to a security object like a blanket or stuffed animal as a substitute that provides comfort when their primary caregiver is not around. Around 12 months, many babies develop separation anxiety and get very distressed when their caregiver leaves. While babies often enjoy watching and being around other kids, they don't interact much with them until around 2 years old. Until this time, they engage in parallel play, or playing near another baby, but not really interacting with her. As stated above, babies and toddlers aren't concerned with others around them, and, for this reason, they don't understand the concept of sharing until they are 2 or 3.

Babies develop by watching the interactions of those around them.
Babies develop by watching the interactions of those around them. (diego cervo/iStock/Getty Images)
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