Infant Cognitive Development - Thinking and Problem Solving

In the first year of life, babies make huge steps in their ability to think, solve problems and communicate. This is called cognitive development. As babies’ five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing) and muscles develop, they grow from totally helpless infants into little explorers who can open up cabinets, stack large blocks on top of each other, begin to say a few words and even throw food from the high chair! Although you may find some of these activities frustrating, they are proof that the baby has made leaps and bounds in cognitive development. These are all signs that a baby’s brain is developing and giving her the power to think and constantly learn more about the world around her.

Thinking and Problem Solving

At the same time that babies are learning how to communicate and develop their language skills, they are also learning how to “get what they want, when they want it.” This is called thinking and problem solving. Below are some examples that illustrate an infant’s problem solving process.

The baby thinks to herself… “I want that rattle!”

The baby solves this problem by…Deciding to roll over, reach for and/or crawl to the rattle.

The baby thinks to herself…“I am hungry!”

The baby solves this problem by…Communicating through cries, grunts or pointing until someone feeds her or pointing to the food or drink that she wants.


Additional Infant Cognitive Abilities

Newborn to 3 months:

  • Begins exploratory play by touching objects and putting them in the mouth

4 to 7 months:

  • Follows a disappearing object with the eyes
  • Reaches to grab a dropped toy
  • Finds a partially hidden object
  • Explores with hands and mouth

8 to12 months:

  • Recognizes family members
  • Uses “trial and error” approach to reach a goal
  • Explores objects in different ways
  • Finds hidden objects easily
  • Looks at correct picture when the image is named
  • Imitates gestures
  • Begins to use objects correctly

Language and Communication

Language development follows a predictable pattern. You’ll find that a baby’s language develops from coos and grunts in the first 12 months, to first words around 10-12 months, to two word sentences around 18 – 24 months and, finally, to whole sentences around age 3. In the first 12 months, babies also communicate with you by crying, smiling or using body gestures (like pointing to something). Communication and language development means learning how to use nonverbal as well as verbal (spoken) actions to express wants, needs or ideas. Developing language and communication skills is an important part of an infant’s cognitive development. How well these skills develop depends upon having an observing, sensitive adult who reads the child’s cues and responds accordingly. The following pages provide numerous activities that you can do with babies to help strengthen their language and communication skills.


Birth to 3 months

  • Listens and responds to voice and other sounds
  • Recognizes some sounds
  • Tells feelings by cooing, gurgling, crying, smiling and moving arms and legs
  • Smiles when sees you or smiles at the sound of your voice
  • Cries differently for different needs ( – Birth to One Year – hearing, understanding and talking)
  • Begins to babble.
  • Begins to imitate some sounds.

4 to 7 months:

  • Begins to watch speaker’s eyes and mouth
  • Begins to respond to own name
  • Begins to respond to “no”
  • Laughs or squeaks
  • Begins to respond to changes in tone of voice and distinguishes emotions by tone of voice
  • Responds to sounds by making sounds
  • Babbles a series of syllables (like bababa)
  • Plays with sounds by varying their voice (babbling loudly, then softly)
  • Babbles begin to sound more speech-like with many different sounds included, like p,b, and m
  • Makes gurgling sound when left alone or when interacting with you
  • Uses voice to express joy and displeasure

8 to 12 months:

Pays increasing attention to speech, music or singing

  • Looks at named pictures with an adult
  • Responds to some commands, especially if accompanied by visual cues (like “bye-bye”)
  • Responds to “no”
  • Babbling has both long and short groups of sounds
  • Uses non-crying and speech sounds to gain and maintain attention
  • Uses gestures to communicate (ex. Waving, holding arms up in the air to be picked up, shaking head for “no”)
  • By 12 months:

  • Maspeak two or more words.
  • Uses exclamations such as “oh-oh!”
  • Tries to imitate words
  • (Note: The information in the chart above comes from and the Children’s Hospital in Richmond, VA. )


    Learning how to communicate and express their needs can be a frustrating experience for young children who have not yet learned how to talk. Teaching children sign language can help to supplement their developing communication skills. Infant sign language is the ability of infants to use their facial expressions, hands and body to communicate their needs. Learn more at or find out about American School for the Deaf baby sign language classes at


    Babies love that sing-song rhythm of talking called “motherese” or “parentese.” Talk often to babies about what you are doing, what is around them, or pretty much anything! The more you talk to your infant, the greater their vocabulary and comprehension as they grow.

    Tips for Promoting Language and Communication Development

  • Delight in babies’ ability to communicate with you. When a baby coos, babbles or gurgles to you, respond back with the same sounds.
  • Talk to babies during daily routines such as diapering, feeding, playing, bathing or dressing. Describe what you are doing and why. This is a great way to help them learn language and see how activities are connected!
  • Babies need LIVE people to talk with in order for them to learn language and communication skills, not just voices heard over the television. Avoid using the T.V. as a substitute for talking with the baby.

  • Look into the baby’s eyes when talking to her. Ask the baby questions and give her the answers. For example, “What time is it? It’s time for your nap.”
  • Tell babies what an object is or what a phrase means. This is called labeling. For example, tell the baby that this is a "red, round ball" or that we say “bye-bye” when we leave.
  • Sing and hum to babies. The songs you sing can be silly ones that you make up on your own or traditional songs and nursery rhymes.
  • Play music for babies. This helps them begin to hear the rhythm of words as they link together and experience the beat of different sounds.
  • NEWS FLASH! When children learn two languages from birth, they are benefiting from the opportunity to take advantage of their innate abilities, as language capacity is greatest during very early childhood.