What Do Babies Think?

Infant teacher holding a baby boy

Conventional wisdom would say that newborn babies and infants are relatively helpless. However, recent literature has shown that babies have cognitive abilities that far exceed our expectations. Learn from the Bright Horizons experts about the brain of a baby and what babies think.

Babies enter the world with fully functioning brains, ready to take in all that life brings. In contrast to the notion that babies are helpless, they observe and make sense of their world. Infants understand more than we think. Babies notice everything adults and children around them say and do, absorbing, processing, and filing this information. Most of their learning occurs 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 the times when babies are observant and “taking it all in,” according to Ann Lewin Benham.

Alicia noticed that her son, Damon, 4 months old, 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 old, was interested in “real” objects. He liked trying to pick up oranges to see how heavy and bumpy they feel.

Each baby differs and shows varying preferences, per pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton.

Jamal, 5 months old, appeared to love to get his diaper changed and engaged his caregiver with his coos and squeals. Edith, also 5 months old, typically cried through her diaper changes and stopped as soon as she was in the arms of her caregiver again.

Infants between 6 and 8 months old are wired with a language sense, a number sense, and a people sense. We know this from detailed research procedures that can measure babies’ preferences. Check out Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making to read more information about the senses with which infants are wired.

Language Sense

Babies as young as 8 months old can distinguish patterns from their own language from background sounds. 

Number Sense

Babies 6 months or younger notice the difference between a large group of objects or pictures and a smaller group (for example, the difference between five dots and 13 dots).

People Sense

Babies as young as 6 months old prefer a puppet showing helpfulness over an unhelpful puppet. 

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

Our full human presence—paying attention to them and talking about their interests—is critical. 

Rochelle made time every day to pay attention to what Danielle, 7 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 down enough to observe a baby, understand her interests, and note what she is communicating.  

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.

Provide interesting materials for babies to explore. 

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 opportunities to solve problems. 

Charisse, 9 months old, 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. 



More on How 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.

Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

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