Understanding Cognitive and Social Development in a Newborn

Newborn Cognitive Development

A newborn's cognitive development grows at an astonishing rate.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Cognitive development is associated with acquiring knowledge in the broadest sense. This includes the development of memory, perception, and judgment as well as the accumulation of facts. For a general discussion of newborn cognitive development, including the nature vs. nurture debate and an explanation of so-called normal development, keep reading.

Your Baby's Cognitive Development

In the seventeenth century, English philosopher John Locke described the infant mind as a tabula rasa, or blank tablet, waiting to be written upon. Two hundred years later, William James said the infant is so heavily "assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin and entrails at once" that he sees his surroundings as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion." As recently as 1964, one medical textbook claimed not only that the average newborn was unable to fix his eyes or respond to sound, but also, "consciousness, as we think of it, probably does not exist in the infant."


Now we know better. In the last 15 years, the number of studies of infant cognition have increased enormously. There are many disagreements about various findings, but researchers definitely agree the newborn comes into the world not as a passive receiver, but as a participant, ready and eager to interact with the environment. For example, although by adult standards the newborn has extremely poor vision, he can still discriminate between light and dark and focus on objects from 8 to 12 inches away. Babies' intellects are working, and working very well, long before they can talk. They perceive a great deal, and they have decided preferences as well.

From the beginning, your baby prefers to sleep in one position or another. By eight weeks, your baby is able to differentiate shapes, liking faces more than inanimate objects, and sees colors, reacting especially strongly to the bright primary colors red and blue. Your baby can distinguish the sweet taste of sugar water and prefers the smell of bananas to that of shrimp. Infants prefer higher-pitched sounds, and within a few weeks, your baby recognizes and responds to his mother's voice. In short, the senses participate in the developmental process from the moment of birth. As a Yale University psychology professor who has studied infants for more than 40 years has said about the newborn's zestful approach to life, "He's eating up the world!"

Genetics Versus Environment

Infants vary tremendously in their capabilities, just as adults do. Some of this variation can be traced to inherited differences. Recently, in fact, geneticists have postulated that, in addition to controlling skin, eye, and hair coloring, genes may control behavior under certain environmental conditions. No matter what a baby's genetic inheritance, though, her environment must supply warmth and nourishment, both emotional and physical, if the baby is to reach her full developmental potential.

A great deal of conflict exists over the degree to which intelligence is inherited. It does seem clear that intelligence is not fixed at a rigid level at birth, and many environmental factors can affect the level of a child's intelligence throughout her development. Some cognitive psychologists today believe that while perhaps the outer limits of intelligence are fixed at birth, a child's environment can make a difference of as much as 40 points in her IQ (intelligence quotient, the number indicating the level of a person's intelligence as shown by special tests). This figure is staggering when one considers it is the same as the range between the value for borderline mental retardation (80 IQ points) and the value for the average college graduate (120 IQ points). Other psychologists who have conducted classic studies of identical twins separated at birth have been more conservative, saying environment can cause a difference of as much as 20 IQ points.

Theories about the genetic inferiority or superiority of certain ethnic or racial groups cannot be proved. The differences among the environments of home, nation, tribe, and culture make genetic comparisons of entire races or ethnic groups scientifically unverifiable. Given the tremendous differences among human beings, the best we can do is speak of developmental potential when trying to gauge intelligence in a young child.

"Normal Development"

Remember: Everything you read or hear about normal development for a child at a certain age refers to what is expected of the average child. But keep in mind that the "average baby" does not exist in reality. Every baby at some time probably will be "ahead" of other children the same age in some ways, and "behind" in other ways.

Whatever his individual differences from the norm, you can expect your baby to develop at an incredible rate during the first year of life, in a head-to-toe direction: He gains control over his eyes, neck, and hands before learning to use his legs for walking. In the beginning, your infant is very much mouth-oriented; the sensations of sucking and mouthing give the most pleasure. Soon, the ability to use the hands develops. At about five months, your baby grasps toys, and his learning is related to the ability to manipulate. By about ten months of age, your baby recognizes and smiles at familiar people and may display anxiety when strangers are present. At about the same time, the baby becomes expert at crawling -- and at getting into everything. At about one year, he begins to walk alone, a true milestone in his development.

In the second and third years, toddlers become increasingly independent and curious, a combination that makes them dangerous to themselves and everything about them. You will have discovered the necessity to carefully childproof your home by the time your baby can crawl, but the hazards increase dramatically as your child becomes more agile and more investigative. During the second year, your child's rapid increase in the ability to communicate through language represents a big breakthrough. "No" becomes a favorite word, and temper tantrums may be frequent as he encounters frustration over boundaries you must set.

As your child grows and changes, you will probably notice his development seems not to occur steadily, in an even line, but rather in spurts.

Parental Expectations

Comparing your child's development with that of the children of your friends and neighbors is futile and unproductive. A common failing of parents is to exaggerate a bit as they try to show their children in the best light, and what you hear is not always the truth. The most glowing (and the most overstated) accounts of babies' accomplishments are likely to come from parents whose children are long past the stages about which they speak. You will hear that one friend's baby slept through the night at two weeks, another's walked at nine months and spoke complete sentences at 18 months, and still another's was completely toilet trained at a year. If you worry that your child isn't living up to standards set by others, you will upset your own tranquility and find it impossible to enjoy and appreciate your baby. In addition, you set your child up for a life of low self-esteem and an endless struggle to meet your impossible expectations.

Even the most accurate and realistic of developmental schedules worked out by pediatricians and psychologists after their observations of thousands of children cannot tell you exactly what your baby should be doing at any given period. These schedules are helpful if not taken too literally, but you should use them only as guides to give you a general idea of what to expect from your child. Every baby develops at a different rate, and if yours is slow to roll over or build a tower of blocks, it doesn't mean he is less intelligent than your friend's or neighbor's child or than the average baby profiled on the development charts.

A child's maturity level may be more likely than his IQ to determine the rate of development. Some children are late bloomers; they simply mature more slowly than others, but often their accomplishments ultimately equal or surpass those of others. Some children develop at an average or above-average rate in one area, such as motor skills, and at a below-average rate in another, such as language. You may wish to take the sex of your child into consideration, too. In general, girls mature more quickly than boys. They usually walk earlier, talk sooner, show more early interest in intellectual skills such as printing and drawing, and become toilet trained earlier.

Promise yourself from the beginning you will respect and love your baby as a unique individual, different from any other, with his or her own beauty and charm. Constantly practice the art of accepting your child as is, without ranking or comparing her with others. Be aware that while the environment you provide is, of course, important, genetics control certain facets of a child's potential. It is not your fault if you do not rear a genius nor is it entirely to your credit if you do.

As stated above, it is believed that the nurture aspect of a baby's existence can do much to enhance her abilities. On the next page, learn about what you can do to promote your baby's development so she can reach her full potential.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.