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What Do Babies Think?

Teacher engaging with infant

Newborn babies enter the world with a fully functioning brain, ready to take in all that life brings. Much of infant cognitive development involves babies observing and making sense of the world that they live in. This is in contrast to the popular notion that babies are helpless. 

Newborns and infants know, and can do, more than we think. Babies absorb as much information as possible, compare it to what they already know, and then file it to an appropriate part of the brain with similar information. They notice everything adults and children around them say and do, and continually get and process information through their senses. 

Here are some facts about how babies think.

Little Known Facts about Babies' Brains

  • Babies have times of alertness when their brains are particularly ready to take in the world.  Watch for eye contact, and what appears to be intent listening and focus. These are times when babies are observant and “taking it all in,” according to Ann Lewin Benham.

Alicia noticed that her son, Damon, four months, was particularly alert and interested in the world after he woke up from his nap and had his diaper changed. Damon was interested in reaching for everything in close range and would try reaching with each hand separately. 

  • Work performed by Beverly Kovach and Dr. Denise Daros-Voseles has shown that babies learn through trial and error. By trying things with minimal adult intervention, they learn how the world works.  

Sean, 11 months, was interested in “real” objects. He liked to try to pick up an orange and see how heavy it was and how bumpy the skin felt.

  •  Each baby is different and shows varying preferences, per pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton.

Jamal, five months, appeared to love to get his diaper changed and engaged his caregiver with his coos and squeals. Edith, also five months, typically cried through her diaper changes and stopped as soon as she was in the arms of her caregiver again. 

  • Infants between six and eight months are wired with a language sense, a number sense, and a people sense. We know this from detailed research procedures which can measure babies’ preferences. Check out Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making, to read more information about the senses infants are wired with.
Language Sense
  • Babies as young as eight months can pick out patterns of sounds from their own language from the many, many sounds they hear in the background. 

Number Sense

  • Six-month-old or younger babies notice the difference between a large group of objects or pictures and a smaller group (for example, the difference between five dots and thirteen dots). 

People Sense

  • Babies as young as six months prefer a puppet showing helpfulness over an unhelpful puppet. 

What do babies need from us for continued healthy brain development?

Rochelle made time every day to put aside everything else and pay attention to what Danielle, seven months, was doing. She observed and talked about what Danielle did, but tried not to intervene too much.

  • Watch and “tune in” to what babies are telling us. We need to slow ourselves down enough to observe a baby and note what a baby is communicating. Slowing down gives adults a chance to see what babies are interested in and to stop and take time for them to experience the item or person of interest.  

Mark found himself busily moving from task to task. He made sure the needs of his six-month-old son Michael, were taken care of, but he didn’t feel like he was tuned in to Michael. He made a decision to consciously slow down and pay more attention to his son. 

Shironda chose materials like different textures, colors and patterns of paper to put on the floor for Marco, eleven months. 

  • An experience is even better when it is shared by another person. In other words, interesting materials alone are not enough—actively engage with your baby during these experiences. 

Shironda made sure she stayed engaged with Marco as he explored the paper. 

  • Provide enough help but not too much. Babies need a chance to struggle a bit to solve problems. 

Charisse, nine months, had crawled under a chair and gotten stuck. April, her caregiver, stayed nearby and offered suggestions but did not lift her out. She let Charisse figure it out while she provided encouragement.

Thinking is a complex process. According to Ann Lewin-Benham, our brains need to “receive, perceive, comprehend, store, manipulate, monitor, control, and respond.” That is a high expectation for anyone, but babies’ brains are up for the challenge.  

Infant Brain Building Activity

Do you need an activity idea for you and your baby? Become inspired by Bright Horizons teachers with this infant music activity. 



Recommended Reading for “What Do Babies Think?”

Brazelton, T. B. (1992). Touchpoint: The Essential Reference: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Galinksy, E. (2010), Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child NeedsNew York: HarperCollins. Kovach, B. & Da Ros-Voseles, D. (2014). Being with Babies: Understanding and Responding to the Infants in Your Care. Lewisville, NC: Gryphon House, Inc.

Lewin-Benham, A. (2010). Infants and Toddlers at Work: Using Reggio-Inspired Materials to Support Brain Development. New York: Teachers College Press.

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