Cognitive Developmental Milestones

Cognitive Milestones in Early Childhood
Aleli Dezmen / Getty Images

Cognitive milestones represent important steps forward in a child's development. Cognitive development refers to how children think, learn, explore, remember, and solve problems.

Historically, babies were often thought of as simple, passive beings. Prior to the 20th-century, children were often seen simply as miniature versions of adults.

It wasn't until psychologists like Jean Piaget proposed that children think differently than adults do that people began to view childhood and adolescence as unique periods of growth and development.

In the past, adults often dismissed the remarkable intellectual skills of infants and very young children, but modern thinkers and researchers have discovered that babies are, in fact, always learning, thinking, and exploring the world around them.

Even newborn infants are actively taking in information and learning new things. In addition to gathering new information about the people and the world around them, babies constantly discover new things about themselves.

This article discusses cognitive milestones that occur between the ages of birth and five years. It also explores what you can do to help encourage your child's cognitive development.

From Birth to 3 Months

The first three months of a child's life are a time of wonder. Major developmental milestones at this age focus on exploring the basic senses and learning more about the body and the environment.

During this period, most infants begin to:

  • Demonstrate anticipatory behaviors, like rooting and sucking at the site of a nipple or bottle
  • Detect sound differences in pitch and volume
  • Discern objects more clearly within a distance of 13 inches
  • Focus on moving objects, including the faces of caregivers
  • See all colors of the human visual spectrum
  • Tell between tastes, from sweet, salty, bitter, and sour
  • Use facial expressions to respond to their environment

From 3 to 6 Months

In early infancy, perceptual abilities are still developing. From the age of 3–6 months, infants begin to develop a stronger sense of perception. At this age, most babies begin to:

  • Imitate facial expressions
  • React to familiar sounds
  • Recognize familiar faces
  • Respond to the facial expressions of other people

From 6 to 9 Months

Looking inside the mind of an infant is no easy task. After all, researchers cannot just ask a baby what he or she is thinking at any given moment. To learn more about the mental processes of infants, researchers have come up with many creative tasks that reveal the inner workings of the baby's brain.

From the age of 6–9 months, researchers have found that most infants begin to:

  • Gaze longer at "impossible" things, such as an object suspended in midair
  • Tell the differences between pictures depicting different numbers of objects
  • Understand the differences between animate and inanimate objects
  • Utilize the relative size of an object to determine how far away it is

From 9 to 12 Months

As infants become more physically adept, they can explore the world around them in greater depth. Sitting up, crawling, and walking are just a few physical milestones that allow babies to gain a greater mental understanding of the world around them.

As they approach one year of age, most infants can:

  • Enjoy looking at picture books
  • Imitate gestures and some basic actions
  • Manipulate objects by turning them over, trying to put one object into another, etc.
  • Respond with gestures and sounds
  • Understand the concept of object permanence, the idea that an object continues to exist even though it cannot be seen

From 1 to 2 Years

After reaching a year of age, children's physical, social, and cognitive development seems to grow by leaps and bounds. Children at this age spend a tremendous amount of time observing the actions of adults, so it is important for parents and caregivers to set good examples of behavior.

Most one-year-olds begin to:

  • Identify objects that are similar
  • Imitate the actions and language of adults
  • Learn through exploration
  • Point out familiar objects and people in picture books
  • Tell the difference between "Me" and "You"
  • Understand and respond to words

From 2 to 3 Years

At 2 years of age, children are becoming increasingly independent. Since they are now able to better explore the world, a great deal of learning during this stage is the result of their own experiences.

Most two-year-olds are able to:

  • Identify their own reflection in the mirror by name
  • Imitate more complex adult actions (playing house, pretending to do laundry, etc.)
  • Match objects with their uses
  • Name objects in a picture book
  • Respond to simple directions from parents and caregivers
  • Sort objects by category (i.e., animals, flowers, trees, etc.)
  • Stack rings on a peg from largest to smallest

From 3 to 4 Years

Children become increasingly capable of analyzing the world around them more complexly. As they observe things, they begin to sort and categorize them into different categories, often referred to as schemas.

Since children are becoming much more active in the learning process, they also begin to pose questions about the world around them. "Why?" becomes a very common question around this age.

At the age of three, most kids are able to:

  • Ask "why" questions to gain information
  • Demonstrate awareness of the past and present
  • Learn by observing and listening to instructions
  • Maintain a longer attention span of around 5 to 15 minutes
  • Organize objects by size and shape
  • Seek answers to questions
  • Understand how to group and match objects according to color

From 4 to 5 Years

As they near school age, children become better at using words, imitating adult actions, counting, and other basic activities that are important for school preparedness.

Most four-year-olds are able to:

  • Create pictures that they often name and describe
  • Count to five
  • Draw the shape of a person
  • Name and identify many colors
  • Rhyme
  • Tell where they live

Help Kids Reach Cognitive Milestones

Encouraging children's intellectual development is a concern for many parents. Fortunately, children are eager to learn right from the very beginning.

  • Cultivate learning experiences at home: While education will soon become an enormous part of a growing child's life, those earliest years are influenced mainly by close family relationships, particularly those with parents and other caregivers. This means that parents are uniquely positioned to help shape how their children learn, think, and develop.
  • Encourage children's interest in the world: Parents can encourage their children's intellectual abilities by helping kids make sense of the world around them. When an infant shows interest in an object, parents can help the child touch and explore the object and say what the object is.
  • Demonstrate information: For example, when a baby looks intently at a toy rattle, the parent might pick up the item and place it in the infant's hand, saying, "Does Gracie want the rattle?" and then shake the rattle to demonstrate what it does.
  • Encourage exploration: Parents should encourage their children to explore the world as they grow older. Try to have patience with young children who seem to have an endless array of questions about each and everything around them. Parents can also pose their own questions to help kids become more creative problem solvers.
  • Ask questions: When facing a dilemma, ask questions such as "What do you think would happen if we…?" or "What might happen if we….?" By allowing kids to come up with original solutions to problems, parents can help encourage both intellectual development and self-confidence.

A Word From Verywell

Developmental milestones provide guideposts so that children can better understand whether their child is developing similarly to other children their age. However, it is important for parents to remember that all kids develop at their own pace. Some cognitive milestones may emerge earlier and others later. Talk to your child's doctor if you are concerned about your child's development.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Larcher V. Children are not small adults: Significance of biological and cognitive development in medical practiceHandbook Philos Med. 2015. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-8706-2_16-1

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Developmental milestones.

  3. Unicef. Your toddler's developmental milestones at 2 years.

  4. Children's Hospital of Philidelphia. Developmental milestones.

  5. Child Mind Institute. Complete guide to developmental milestones.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.