What is object permanence and when does it appear in babies?

Object permanence is a major milestone of cognitive development. Thanks to him, babies understand that there is a world beyond their senses.

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 24 January, 2022

Babies experience dizzying physical and psychological development during their first years of life. They are acquiring a multitude of capacities that allow them to understand their environment and function in it in a better way. One of the most important is object permanence. a psychological skill that helps the child understand that there is a world beyond himself.

PFor a newborn there is only what he can see, touch, smell or feel. What escapes his own perception, for him simply does not exist. This happens because he does not yet have the ability to mentally represent objects or people. Thus, if his mother moves out of his field of vision, he will probably show no crying or signs of distress; and if she hides a toy from him, she won’t try to look for it.

This reality begins to change after four months, when object permanence gradually and progressively develops. Then, the baby will begin to understand that the elements have their own existence and continue there despite not being able to perceive them with the senses. This is a great milestone that marks a before and after in infant cognition.

Object permanence and cognitive development according to Piaget

Newborn babies are not aware of the object.

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget made great contributions to the understanding of evolutionary psychology, among which his classification of the four stages of cognitive development stands out. According to this author, children go through different periods in which their way of thinking, interpreting and relating to the environment vary considerably.

The first of these stages, known as sensorimotor stage, spans from birth to two years of age and has the permanence of the object as the main achievement to be achieved.

Piaget observed the development of this ability through the examination of how babies react when presented with a toy and then hide it With a blanket. Progressively, the child will go from not showing any search intention to being able to find the partially visible object or even to find it in unexpected places.

Substages of the sensorimotor stage

All these transitions occur in the sub-stages described by the same author:

  • Reflex activity: During the first month of life, the baby acts mainly through innate reflexes. She learns to move her body and can follow an object with her eyes, but what escapes his field of perception ceases to exist for him.
  • Primary circular reactions: between the first and fourth month, the infant already acts more intentionally and pays more attention to objects. However, he still does not understand that they continue to exist beyond his senses.
  • Secondary circular reactions: Between four and eight months, the first notions of object permanence begin to emerge. The boy will already try to reach those toys that are partially hidden, because it will understand that the rest of the toy is also there.
  • Coordination of secondary circular relationships: from eight to twelve months, the permanence of the object itself is installed. At this time, the baby will already search for and be able to retrieve totally hidden objects, as long as you saw how they hid.
  • Tertiary circular reactions: the infant is between 12 and 18 months old. He is now able to search for an object in those places where he is usually found. He knows that the object exists even though he does not see it and look in the most familiar places. However, if it is placed in a strange place, it will not occur to it to look there.
  • Symbolic problem solving: from 18 to 24 months the child already understands that the object can be anywhere, even if you haven’t seen how he hides it. Thus, he manages to have a mental representation of the object and can imagine that it is in different places.

Object permanence and its relationship with separation anxiety

Object permanence is essential for the baby to function in the environment, but it also has a great influence on the social level. Before, the child considered that people ceased to exist when he did not perceive them, now knows that they still exist and understands that they are gone. What he doesn’t know is when they will return or if they have abandoned him forever.

For this reason, with the development of object permanence, the well-known separation anxiety also arises. The infant who used to remain calm and serene when he was left in his crib or when his parents left him in the care of others, now may react with great distress, crying and despair to these same situations.

Before, he did not clearly perceive the separation between himself and the rest of the world. Now, he knows that his attachment figures are different individuals from him and he fears that they will move away.

How to stimulate the learning of object permanence

From about 24 months, children begin to understand that the object persists even if they do not see it.

Object permanence is a developmental milestone that all babies reach sooner or later. It is worth mentioning that the ages proposed by Piaget are indicative and that each child can follow their own pace. In fact, his postulates have received various criticisms, since authors such as Bower affirm that this ability is present at much earlier ages.

In any case, this learning can be stimulated through games and simple activities with the baby:

  • Peek-a-boo: This popular game consists of cover face with hands and ask the child “where’s mommy?”. Later, her face is revealed while exclaiming “here she is!”. Younger babies, who have not yet developed object permanence, will react with fascination.
  • Hide and seek: it is possible, too, play hide and seek dolls and see if the little one looks for them. First, partially hiding them, and then totally. Later, it is possible to hide them while the little one does not see it. You can play out this same dynamic with the attachment figure hiding.
  • Montessori permanence boxes: this toy can be used from six months. Allows the child to insert an object into a slot, see how it disappears for a few moments and you can get it back either automatically (boxes with tray) or when opening the door or drawer of the box where it has been inserted.

In any case, don’t worry if your child is a little behind the recommended ages to develop this skill. Remember that this is not a matter of stimulation and that at some point you will acquire this ability. For now, he enjoys watching her discover how the world works.

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