Cognitive development refers to the evolution of the ability to think and understand. In a child, it starts with basic processes such as perceiving objects and events in the environment, and understanding and processing language.
Gradually, it reaches more advanced levels such as the formation of thought processes, which includes intelligence, language skills, reasoning power, decision-making and problem-solving skills, conceptualizing and planning, and memory.
It is important for parents to know about the normal course of cognitive development in children for two reasons:
It helps them closely monitor the development of their children and plan activities to help them develop various skills.
It helps them understand early on whether their children are suffering from developmental delay and seek early medical or therapeutic intervention. This makes it much easier to deal with issues than when the diagnosis is delayed.
Let's look at some key cognitive milestones that children are expected to achieve at various stages of their growth during the first six years.
0 to 3 months
Newborns become capable of surveying their surroundings soon after birth. Most infants possess the ability to concentrate on moving bodies and can follow them with their eyes.
During the first three months of infancy, babies can:
Imitate the facial expressions of others such as smiling and frowning
Respond to familiar sounds
Differentiate between the volume and pitch of sounds
Distinguish between various colors based on hues and brightness
Associate events with certain sights
3 to 6 months
During this time, babies start developing the power of perception
Things that a child can do at this stage are:
Recognize who their parents are
Can imitate sounds
Can develop stranger anxiety (fear of strangers)
Can differentiate between animate and inanimate objects
Can judge distance based on the size of objects
Can drop and pick up objects
6 to 9 months
Babies by this age are capable of memorizing reactions and may repeat their actions to see whether their parents react in the same way every time they do it.
Things that most babies by this stage do are:
Respond when called by their names
Imitate gestures and actions
Start fiddling with objects
Understand the meaning of simple words like 'no'
Recollect the existence of an object even they can't see it
9 to 12 months
As babies approach their first birthday, they start speaking short words like 'mama' and 'papa'
Some other things that babies can do at this stage are:
Mimicking sounds of animals
Associating objects with their respective names like 'toys', 'blankets', etc
Displaying symptoms of separation anxiety when away from parents
12 to 18 months
Once children are more than a year old, the speed of their cognitive development increases.
Things that a child can do at this stage are:
They can process and understand around 10-50 words
Can identify parts of the human body
Develop a sense of ownership by associating the word 'my' with a select group of people or objects
Can follow instructions involving two different tasks like picking up toys and placing them in a box
18 months to 3 years
According to the theory suggested by Jean Piaget - a swiss psychologist, during the cognitive development period of the ages18 months to 3 years, children remain in the 'sensorimotor' stage. They also begin to seek more freedom, which can be challenging for their parents at times, especially when it comes to matters of safety.
Children of this age group can perform the following:
Can follow the displacement of objects visually
Can make use of instruments and tools
Can understand basic emotions such as trust and fear
Can process and understand 100-150 words at a time
Can add around ten new words to their vocabulary every day
Can understand the concept of discipline and the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior
Can understand the meaning of expressions like 'please' and 'thank you'
3 to 6 years
Between the ages of 3 and 6, children have a self-centered view of the world around them. They need to be taught how to learn and memorize. This is also the age when they enter the preschool stage and develop social interaction skills such as playing and cooperating with other children of their own age.
It is normal for preschoolers to test the limits of their cognitive abilities, and they may start exhibiting negative behaviors such as talking back to adults, lying and bullying.
Other signs of cognitive development in children of this age group are :
An increased attention span
Ability to read
Developing structured routines, such as doing household chores
It is important for parents to be aware of cognitive milestones to spot any developmental delay or deviation in their children. This will enable them to seek assistance from experts early on and provide their child with the help necessary to catch up with his peers.
When to reach out to a doctor?
Parents should consult a developmental pediatrician if their baby
does not exhibit a social smile after he is 2 months old
does not respond to the sound of a rattle or his name being called by 5-6 months of age
does not have stranger anxiety by the time he is 7-8 months old
does not learn to identify body parts by the time he is 15 months old
does not start talking even after he is 2 years old
has problems understanding simple directions
seems confused when asked to perform simple actions even at 3 years of age
Some problems leading to cognitive delay in children up to 6 years of age:
Cerebral palsy: Due to poor muscle control in babies with cerebral palsy, the development of motor skills may be delayed. This inhibits their interaction with the environment. This can also impair cognitive development, and lead to poor vision and hearing.
Autism: This is a developmental disability that can be detected during early childhood. In children with autism normal brain development is disrupted. Their social and communication skills are adversely affected, sometimes severely. Autistic children have poor eye contact, limited language development and diminished ability to interact with peers. Children in whole autism if diagnosed early, respond very well to the therapy.
Learning Disabilities: These are a result of impairment of cognitive processes of understanding and using spoken and written language. They cause difficulties with one or more academic sets such as reading, writing, calculating, etc.
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In the third part of our series on developmental delays and early intervention, we look at Cognitive Developmental Delay, or in simple terms, delay in thinking or understanding. Read on to know details about it
As part of our series on early intervention, we look at Motor Developmental Delay, also referred to as delay in a child's movement and muscle coordination. Find out how can you detect this early on and how therapy helps...