What Is Object Permanence and When Do Babies Understand It?


Newborn Development
Reflexes in Newborn Babies and Infants

As your baby grows physically, she’s also gaining knowledge and coming to understand 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 understanding of it. You may be delighted to know that you’ll be playing 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, she may assume you’ve vanished into thin air. The same goes for concealing objects, such as when you cover a toy with a blanket. She 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.

When Do Babies Start to Grasp Object Permanence?

Your baby will begin to understand the concept of object permanence when she is around 7 or 8 months old. You can tell that your baby is starting to understand object permanence if she starts looking around for a toy you've just hidden. Separation anxiety usually starts around this time, too. That’s when your baby may "cling" to you and may fuss and cry especially when you leave her sight or go away. In a way, separation anxiety is related to your baby not full understanding object permanence. With separation anxiety, your baby most likely will be in great 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 even cry less while you’re away.

When Do Babies Have a Complete Understanding of Object Permanence?

At around 10 months old, your baby will most likely have a full understanding of the concept of object permanence. For example, if you hide a toy underneath a blanket, he’ll know to pick up the blanket and look for the toy. And if you hide the toy and then remove it from its hiding place and hide it someplace else, he will assume it still exists and will keep looking for it.

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 your little one will come to learn that objects continue to exist even when he can’t see them. You can help foster this aspect of cognitive development by playing hiding games like peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, or by hiding and revealing objects. When your baby starts to understand object permanence — around 7 or 8 months old — try this simple game: Hide a favorite toy underneath a blanket, and when she’s looking away, remove it. Your baby may be puzzled as to where the toy went. Keep doing this game and eventually — closer to 10 months old — she’ll search for the missing toy, knowing it exists even though it’s not clearly visible. At this point, she'll have 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 become 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 in the world. It’s incredible to watch your baby’s horizons expanding at breakneck speed. The concept of object permanence is just one of important things your baby is learning during this time, and it’s something you can help along. Try playing hide-and-seek with a favorite 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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