Infant Cognitive Development Stages

Since infancy, children begin to explore and comprehend the external world, and when they interact with new objects and phenomena, the cognitive aptitude commences developing. According to Piaget, the children pass through four basic stages of cognitive development, and the substantial transformation in child perception occur at each developmental stage (Feldman, 2004).

Each of four stages introduced by Piaget is characterized by the changes in the development of intellect and the mechanisms of cognition. There are sensorimotor (birth – 2 years), preoperational (2 – 7 years), concrete operational (7 – 11 years), and formal operational (adolescence and adulthood) stages of cognitive growth are recognized (Feldman, 2004). While at the sensorimotor stage of development, the infants acquire knowledge through the sensual experience and manipulation of the external objects, the preoperational stage is related to cognition through games which, despite the outward simplicity of the process, are associated with the development of the complex mechanisms of logic and comprehension (Alves, 2014).

At the concrete operational stage, the children’s thinking processes become more logical, but the ability to understand the abstract and hypothetical concepts develops only throughout the stage of formal operations (Feldman, 2004). In this way, the individual quality of thinking and cognition process gradually changes while passing through a new stage of cognitive development.

The initial phase of the cognitive development lasts for nearly two years. Within several months of life, a child makes the attempts to comprehend the world, and his/her understanding is limited by the sensory perception and motor activity. Infant behavior merely includes the simple motor reactions provoked by the sensory stimuli (Alves, 2014). At the sensorimotor stage, the children use their inherent abilities such as sucking, grasping, looking, and hearing to learn about the external environment.

The sensorimotor stage is divided into six separate stages characterized by the development of new cognitive abilities in a child: reflexes, primary circular reactions, secondary circular reactions, coordination, tertiary circular reactions, and early representational thinking (Alves, 2014).

The aspects of the early cognitive performance developing within the three months after birth are reflexes (0 – 1 month) and primary circular reactions (1 – 4 months) (Alves, 2014). At the first substage, a child perceives the external world by using his/her innate reflex actions such as sucking and looking. The cognition based on the reflex activities is a natural mechanism which helps to expand the range of cognitive functions which then become more refined and coordinated at the later stages.

Coordination of senses and development of new behavioral patterns are realized at the second substage of primary circular reactions (Alves, 2014). In contrast to the reflex actions, the circular reactions imply the intentional activity. A child may intentionally repeat the actions associated with pleasant emotions. Moreover, the development of motor skills starts after the first month of postpartum. Motor skills develop through the active interaction with the environment, and the developmental outcomes largely depend on the sociocultural and environmental conditions in which a child is being raised.

Factors of Cognitive Development

During prenatal development, a child is closely connected to the mother’s organism, and any psychological and physical disturbances can significantly influence the realization of the infant’s inherent cognitive potential. Poor nutrition, substances intake, and diseases passed throughout gestation period are the major stressors which may provoke long-term impacts on the child’s cognitive development.

Poor prenatal nutrition is common in developing countries where the scarcity of food containing iodine may provoke the mental retardation in the children (Reagan, 2010). The illnesses experienced during pregnancy may negatively influence the developmental outcomes as well. For example, the exposure to the German measles during the first months of the prenatal development may lead to the irreversible impairments in vision organs (Reagan, 2010). And as a result, it may cause the cognitive underdevelopment that may interfere with the individual’s cognitive functioning across the lifespan.

The psychological stimulation since the first months of infancy may have a decisive significance for the individual cognitive development. It is observed that the children raised in the orphanages where the interactions with the caregivers were reduced to minimum demonstrated the symptoms of developmental delays in motor and language functioning more often than those who were raised in families (Carson et al., 2015).

In this way, the communication and social interactions, as well as the ability to explore the environment, manipulate new objects, and practice the adopted skills, are essential for a child. In case a child does not have an opportunity to interact with the social environment in early childhood, the development of his communication skills, social and emotional competence will be delayed, and, as a result, the individual will face challenges in the establishment of relationships with others and achievement of success in multiple domains of life (Goldin-Meadow et al., 2014).

The recent research findings also revealed that, to some extent, the socioeconomic status of the family affects the intellectual development of children. The children who were born and raised in poor families are often characterized by lower IQ levels than those who were raised in the privileged social group (Goldin-Meadow et al., 2014). The socioeconomic factor is interrelated with the educational and environmental factors as the lack of sufficient financial resources frequently leads to the excess level of parental stress that may lead to emotional neglect or abuse. Poverty is also associated with unhealthy diet, unfavorable environmental conditions, negative sociocultural influences, and inability to access adequate educational practices which can result in developmental delays.

Evidence-based Intervention

Cognitive development is regarded as a critical health indicator in early child development, and the research findings reveal that the early experiences of interactions with the environment affect early cognitive development to a large extent, and the negative experiences may influence the course of individuals throughout the lifespan (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2013). The favorable sociocultural context and the active interactions with caregivers are crucial for the sound neonatal growth.

During the first months of infants’ life, the changes in the neurologic structure of brain take place, the communication patterns between brain neurons expand and become stronger as the child keeps exploring the world (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2013). The sensory perceptions such as touch, sound, and visual experience help a child to learn faster while the lack of interactions and environmental stimulation result in severe and long-term developmental delays.

The fashion of parenting is one of the crucial factors affecting the formation of child’s cognitive behavior and intellectual development. The positive parenting may be regarded as a key element of a child’s well-adjustment, social acceptance, and academic success in the future (Goldin-Meadow et al., 2014). The concept of the positive parenting is primarily focused on the establishment of sound communication, provision of support, and emotional bonding with the child.

The difficulties that a child experiences in the development of cognitive aptitude may be caused by the lack of parents’ interactions with the child and a higher level of parents’ involvement in the process of early child development can facilitate the accumulation of child’s socioemotional and cognitive competence. The research findings reveal that the efficient process of cognition can be constructed through the process of child-parent interrelations and the active participation of parents in the process of infant’s development. The intervention practice should address the individual developmental needs through physical and mental stimulation.

The caregivers should create a favorable social and cultural environment for a sound development of an infant, and through communication that involves sensory and auditory interactions with a child, the parents should stimulate the development of neurocognitive mechanisms.

Professional Ethics

According to the APA’s Code of Ethics, “psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm” (APA, 2010). Implementation of the intervention aimed at the prevention of cognitive underdevelopment helps to realize the inherent potential of a child, and it thus is beneficial. On the other hand, when the psychologists and caregivers fail to perform intervention practices in time, the delays in motor and cognitive development may have persistent adverse impacts on a child’s social, psychological, and intellectual welfare.

According to the ACA’s ethical standards (2014), the psychologists and their patients should work together to design therapy plans that would “offer reasonable promise of success and are consistent with the abilities, temperament, developmental level, and circumstances of clients” (p. 4). When the family does not have sufficient resources and support, or if the caregivers are disorganized and stressed, the psychologist should assist in planning and intervening.

Conveying information is one of the major responsibilities of psychologists, and along with risk information, it is also important to provide the families with recommendations for the access to the available psychological and social support resources. Different support networks (religious, cultural, social) may hold significant meanings in the lives of the families addressed for assistance in the implementation of intervention for their child (ACA, 2014). With the consent of the clients, the psychologist may refer to these various resources of support to provide more opportunities to follow the intervention and increase its efficiency.


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American Counseling Association (2014). ACA code of ethics. Web.

American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Web.

Carson, V., Hunter, S., Kuzik, N., Wiebe, S. A., Spence, J. C., Friedman, A.,…Hinkley, T. (2015). Systematic review of physical activity and cognitive development in early childhood. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 10(15), 1-6.

Feldman, D. H. (2004). Piaget’s stages: The unfinished symphony of cognitive development. New Ideas in Psychology, 22(3), 175-231. Web.

Goldin-Meadow, S., Levine, S. C., Hedges, L. V., Huttenlocher, J., Raudenbush, S. W., & Small, S. L. (2014). New evidence about language and cognitive development based on a longitudinal study: Hypotheses for intervention. American Psychologist, 69(6), 588-599. Web.

Lefmann, T., & Combs-Orme, T. (2013). Early brain development for social work practice: Integrating neuroscience with Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23, 640–647.

Reagan, L. J. (2010). Dangerous pregnancies: Mothers, disabilities, and abortion in modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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