Object permanence

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As your baby grows physically, she’s also advancing mentally, gaining knowledge and understanding of how the world around her works. One of the cognitive skills your baby will develop in her first year is understanding the concept of object permanence. Learn what exactly object permanence is and how you can help foster your baby’s grasp on it. Hint: get ready to play lots of peek-a-boo!

What Is Object Permanence?

Object permanence is the concept that objects continue to exist even when they’re not in sight. Early on, babies don’t yet have the cognitive skills to understand that what they can’t see still exists. For young infants, the world around them contains only what they can see in front of them at any given moment. For example, if you were to leave your baby’s room, he may assume you’ve vanished into thin air. The same goes for concealing objects, such as when you cover a toy with a blanket. He will think the toy has disappeared forever. In time, your baby will begin to understand that you still exist even if she can’t see you, and that a hidden toy is still there under the blanket.

At What Age do Babies Start to Grasp Object Permanence?

Your baby will begin to understand the concept of object permanence when he is around 7 or 8 months old. You can tell that your baby is beginning to understand object permanence if he starts looking around for a toy you've just hidden. Separation anxiety usually starts soon after. That’s when your baby may "cling" to you and fuss or cry when you leave his sight or go away. With separation anxiety, your baby most likely will be in distress when you leave the room because she doesn’t know that you’ll come back. Once she understands the concept of object permanence, she’ll know that she can expect your return, and she may cry a little less, or not at all, while you’re away.

Stages of Object Permanence

Your little genius will go through a few stages as she develops more cognitive awareness, especially around object permanence.

  1. 0 to 6 Months: No Object Permanence. At the beginning of your baby’s life, he doesn’t quite understand that things still exist after they leave his sight. Therefore, newborns tend to adapt quickly to new caregivers because once mom or dad leaves their sight, there’s no understanding that they can return. If this sounds sad, don’t worry! Leaving your newborn will be more difficult for you than your baby, and most likely, he’ll just be happy to see you return.

  2. 4 to 7 Months: Developing Object Permanence. Somewhere between 4 to 7 months, your baby will start to understand the beginnings of object permanence. At first, it will prompt her to think, then it may simply amuse her, and eventually, she’ll want to play games! She may also show signs of separation anxiety, as she hasn’t quite grasped that you will return when you leave her.

  3. 10 to 12 Months: Developed Object Permanence. By the time your baby is 10 months, he’ll have a very strong understanding of object permanence, and by 12 months, he will most likely fully develop his awareness of it. He will know that things leaving his sight still exists and that mom and dad will come back when they leave.

  4. 12+ Months: Separation Anxiety. Although your baby develops her cognitive understanding on certain concepts in her first year, object permanence in toddlers is just as important. Because she knows you can return to her, she will miss you and want you back. This is how separation anxiety develops in toddlers, and although it can be an emotional struggle for both child and parent, hang in there. It will eventually subside!

How Can You Help Your Baby Learn the Concept of Object Permanence?

Object permanence is a natural part of your baby’s cognitive development, and you can help foster this aspect by playing games and enjoying certain activities like peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, or by hiding and revealing objects. When your baby first starts to understand object permanence around 7 or 8 months old, try this simple game:

  1. Hide a favourite toy underneath a blanket, and when he’s looking away, remove it.

  2. Your baby may be puzzled as to where the toy went.

  3. Keep doing this game and, eventually, he’ll search for the missing toy, knowing it exists even though it’s not clearly visible! By playing similar games, you can help encourage a fuller understanding of this concept.

As your baby observes all the things that happen in the household, such as the comings and goings of siblings, parents, and pets, the concept of object permanence will slowly become more and more reinforced.

Is Peek-a-Boo an Example of Object Permanence?

Peek-a-boo is actually a great example of a game that can help your baby understand the concept of object permanence. You could also play other similar games with your baby. For example, during diapering hide your face with your hands, and then reveal your smiling face.

The Bottom Line

Seeing your baby grow and develop is a wonderful thing. There’s so much for your little one to learn about the world and it’s incredible to watch your baby’s horizons expanding at breakneck speed! The concept of object permanence is just one of the many important things your baby is learning in her first year, and it’s something you can easily help encourage with a little fun! Try playing hide-and-seek with a favourite toy or peek-a-boo to help encourage your baby’s development. In time, your baby will learn that the toy hasn’t disappeared for good, and that mommy and daddy will always return.

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

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