Cognitive Developmental Milestones

In the past, people usually assumed that babies were simple and passive beings. They were even seen as miniature adults. Jean Piaget changed this view by proposing that children simply think differently than adults. After this, adults began viewing both childhood and adolescence as periods of development and growth.

For years, adults assumed that infants and children did not have intellectual skills but recently researchers and thinkers have found that they are actually constantly exploring, thinking and learning. Even when a baby is newborn, they will actively learn new things by taking in their surroundings. This article will explore the cognitive developmental milestones from the time a baby is born. Knowing these cognitive developmental milestones can help parents know better what they should do to help the babies grow healthily.


Cognitive Development Milestones

From 0-3 Months

Most of the major developmental milestones between zero and three months involve learning about the environment and their body as well as discovering their basic senses. Infants generally start:

  • Seeing things within 13 inches more clearly
  • Focusing on moving objects
  • Distinguishing between tastes
  • Detecting volume and pitch differences
  • Seeing all of the colors
  • Making facial expressions to respond to the environment
  • Anticipate things (such as sucking when seeing a bottle or nipple)

From 3-6 Months

This is when babies start to develop their sense of perception to a stronger degree. This includes:

  • Recognizing familiar faces
  • Responding to people’s facial expressions
  • Recognizing familiar sounds (and reacting to them)
  • Imitating facial expressions

From 6-9 Months

Researchers use tasks to determine what a baby’s braining is thinking about. Based on that research, they found that between 6 and 9 months, they usually start:

  • Understanding how inanimate and animate objects are different
  • Distinguishing between pictures with different quantities of objects
  • Determining how far away something is based on its relative size
  • Staring longer at things that are “impossible” (including objects that are suspended in midair)

From 9-12 Months

As babies get older, they begin to increase their physical abilities by sitting, crawling and walking. Each of these activities gives them access to more of their environment, increasing their mental understanding of it. Between 9 and 12 months infants usually start:

  • Understanding object permanence (knowing that an object still exists even if you can’t see it)
  • Imitating basic actions as well as gestures
  • Responding using sounds and gestures
  • Enjoying to look at various picture books
  • Beginning to manipulate objects in new ways, such as by trying to put one item inside another or turning them over

From 1-2 Years Old

Once a child reaches their first birthday, their cognitive, social and physical development seems to increase dramatically. At this point, children tend to spend a great deal of time observing those around them so this is when it is especially crucial to always set a good example. At about one year old, most kids will start:

  • Understanding and responding to words
  • Identifying objects that are similar to each other
  • Learning the difference between the words “me” and “you”
  • Imitating the language and actions of adults (which is why being a good example becomes important)
  • Pointing out familiar people and objects in one of their picture books
  • Learning by exploring their surroundings

From 2-3 Years Old

When a child reaches two years of age, they start to become more and more independent. At this point they are more physically able to explore their world and because of this most of their learning at this point in their life is due to their own experiences. At age two, most children can do the following:

  • Match various objects to their uses
  • Name the objects they find in a picture book
  • Respond to any simple directions their parents or caregivers give them
  • Identify themselves by name when looking in the mirror at their reflection
  • Imitate adult actions that are more complex (including doing laundry or playing house)
  • Stack rings in order starting with the largest and ending with the smallest
  • Sort various objects based on their category (such as flowers, trees or animals)

From 3-4 Years Old

When children are between three and four years old their abilities to analyze the world in complex ways increases. Because they are observing and analyzing more, they can sort and categorize the things they observe into various schemas (categories). At this stage, they also start to become more active in learning and will start asking questions such as “why.” At this point, most children can:

  • Ask questions using “why” to increase their knowledge
  • Actively look for answers to their questions
  • Have an attention span that is longer, reaching between 5 and 15 minutes
  • Understand how to match and group various objects based on their colors
  • Organize various objects based on shape and size
  • Learn by listening to instructions as well as observing
  • Show an awareness of both the past and the present

From 4-5 Years Old

By the time they are four years old children are getting closer to school and can usually do activities that are essential to be ready for school. Some of these include counting, imitating the actions of adults and using words. Here are some things children can usually do at four years old:

  • Draw pictures as well as naming and describing them
  • Draw the general shape of a person
  • Tell someone where they live
  • Count up to five
  • Rhyme
  • Identify and name a variety of colors

From 5-6 Years Old

When a child is between five and six years old, they can usually:

  • Fairly accurately retell a story using a picture book
  • Name numbers and letters (at least some)
  • Count up to ten
  • Sort objects based on a single characteristic
  • Start accurately using “tomorrow” and “yesterday”
  • Meaningfully and purposefully use classroom tools
  • Relate the time on a clock to their daily schedule
  • Increase attention span
  • Learn with instructions from adults
  • Ignore distractions when they want
  • Better understand why things happen

What Can Parents Do to Help Children?


The best way for parents to help their children reach the cognitive developmental milestones is to help them understand the world. If their baby is interested in an object, the parent should say its name and help them learn how to explore and use the object. When children get older, parents should make an active effort to encourage them to explore the world around them. They should also try to be patient and answer their child’s questions. When the child is old enough, parents can also try asking them questions such as what would happen if they did something to increase their creativity.