7 Amazing Play Ideas To Enhance Cognitive Development In Infants (0-3 Months)


Cognitive development in infants can be observed right from birth. This developmental phase begins with situational learning as a result of the surrounding environmental stimulus and sensory experiences through object manipulation and motor coordination. The phase of cognitive development from birth to three months, as determined mostly by the sensori-motor learning and coordination process, falls under the category of Sensorimotor stage. This stage of child development is thus, majorly characterised by motor movements like head-turning, kicking, pushing, hand clasping, etc. along with other related behaviours such as sucking, looking, watching, listening, giving a social smile, recognising familiar face or voice and touching.

Let’s try and understand:

  • Various facets of cognitive development in infants from 0 to 3 months
  • Cognitive development in children as noticed in motor, sensory and social and emotional milestones
  • Activities to enhance cognitive developments
  • When to see a doctor

Cognitive development in infants from birth (0) to three (3) months can be determined by the two following sub-phases:

  • Reflex (0-1 month)- In this phase of child development, your newborn initiates gaining insight from her surrounding environment through sucking behaviour and looking.
  • Primary Circular Reaction (1-3 months)- During this phase, your baby starts coordinating sensory experiences with motor activities–for example if she gets pleasure (sensory experience) from kicking her legs (motor experience), she will do it again and again. She will tend to repeat the behaviour if she finds it pleasurable. For example, if your child accidentally puts her thumb in her mouth, she will suck her thumb in the future also, if she finds it pleasurable. Similarly, your child will love to play peek-a-boo repeatedly if she enjoys the play.

Babies as young as one hour old could imitate gestures like tongue protrusion and mouth opening after watching an adult produce the same gestures.

Andrew N. Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore – University of Washington (1983)

There are several behaviours you will observe in your child during this particular stage of child development. These are as follows:

  1. Listening closely to sounds
  2. Looking towards the sound direction
  3. Getting attracted to a bright colour or a moving object
  4. Coordinating eye movement to follow a sound, attractive colour, a familiar person or a moving object
  5. Turning head to observe or to respond to any environmental stimulus
  6. Imitating the tongue/ oral movement of adults to produce sound
  7. Imitating and responding when talked to
  8. Repeating the behaviours that seem pleasurable
  9. Trying to reach out to any attractive object by stretching and related body movements

Cognitive Development in Infants : 1 month

  • ​​​​​​​Some of the reflexesrooting, sucking, palmar (attempt to grab a finger when out in the baby’s palm), moro (startling)–would already have kicked in.
  • You will notice that the baby will respond to loud noises or even the sound of sneezing or coughing. It can be of startle or crying or a fearful shrug.
  • She will watch you keenly when you sing to her or make baby talk though may not give any reactions as of now.

Cognitive Development in Infants : 2 months

  • Sucking reflex is well established by the second month as is rooting, palmar, grasping reflex…long-haired moms are advised to keep their hair tied and keep their earrings out of the baby’s reach.
  • Newborn reflexes — moro and tonic — will start to fade out now.
  • The baby will start showing a marked preference for bright colours and bold designs since her vision is getting clearer now. 
  • This will enable her to focus and track bright objects. She will also start trailing you with her eyes when you move around in her vicinity.
  • She will now firmly distinguish your sounds from other peoples and will reward you with a lop-sided smile.
  • This is also the time when she will now start to get bored and will become fussy when a change of scenery or a new activity is wanted.

Cognitive Development in Infants : 3 months

  • By now he would be heels over head in love with you — literally! He will anticipate being lifted when you will be around him (and cry if you don’t). Such a delightful feeling!
  • She will learn the basics of cause and effect theory — when she pushes a toy, it moves. And will repeat the behaviour many times.
  • By this time, she will also learn and enjoy playing with her own fingers and arms/legs; squeeze them, open her fists, close them back, etc.
  • Her love for strong, bold colours and designs will be definite.
  • She will trail people, pets, or things that fall in her line of vision, with her eyes.

However, these behaviours can be categorised into different sub-fields according to the milestones they belong to. For better understanding of your cognitive development in children phase from her birth until 3 months of age, this segregation is done here:

Motor Milestones from 0-3 months as associated with cognitive development in children

  • She will try to raise her head and chest, and even stretch her body at times when she is lying on her stomach or back
  • The baby will try and support her upper body on her own at times during lying down or any activity
  • Stretching legs and kicking in the air when lying on her back or stomach will be a frequent activity.
  • Opening and closing movements in hands will be repeated many times as will bringing hands to mouth
  • She will try to grasp and hold a toy or other attractive objects, and try out shaking gestures while holding any object especially if that makes sound
  • Body stretching and rhythmic movement with some sound or even when she is happy will be a common behaviour.

Sensory Milestones (Auditory and Visual) as associated with cognitive development in children

  • She will keenly look at faces and try to recognise, especially if seems familiar
  • The baby will establish eye movement to follow any moving object or person, or even in the direction of some sound
  • Initiation of hand-eye coordination will kick in
  • She will listen to sounds or familiar voice keenly
  • And will try to recognise sound or voice
  • She will respond to sounds by turning head
  • A very interesting phase is when she will begin to imitate sound, or any familiar voice by meaningless babbling when talked to

Emotional and Social Milestones related to cognitive development in children

Close to 3 months your little one will:

  • Initiate social smile
  • Smiles at your voice, or any other familiar voice
  • Responds to some sound or familiar voice through babbling or movement as a social gesture
  • React through movement, smile or making sounds to express joy and happiness
  • Responds to enjoyable play and seems to repeat pleasurable behaviour
  • Cry in response to express sadness when her enjoyable behaviour ceases to exist
  • Keeps communicating her feelings through gestures and movements
  • Tends to observe and imitate non-verbal movements, verbal gestures and facial/ bodily expressions of others

Did you know? Your newborn can feel but can not think yet. So she picks up your feeling as her’s. That’s why she remains calm when you are calm, and is hard to settle when you are tired or irritated.

Activities to Enhance Cognitive Development in infants at 0-3 months

There are some simple activities that you can continue at home on a regular basis to keep your baby’s cognitive faculties engaged, which will help enhance her development through proper sensorimotor stimulation. Try the following simple home-based activities:

1. Reading to your baby

Yes, you can actually read to your newborn. Expose her to some bright and colourful stimulus like pictures, colour books, toy objects, etc. and read to her. She will love listening to your voice while looking at the colourful objects and at times will even try touching them. Books can also be a great companion during tummy time. Showing bright pictures and telling a story at the same time will motivate your little one to stay calm during her tummy time while getting introduced to the world of books.

2. Talking to your baby

Communicating with your newborn from the very day she is born will surely enhance her cognitive skills. Tell her about your day or describe what is going on in the world around. This not only helps to improve her skills but also helps strengthen your emotional bond with your child.

3. Exposing your baby to moving objects

Your baby, when exposed to some bright and attractive moving stimulus, gets the optimum amount of opportunity for cognitive faculty enhancements through sensorimotor coordination and engagement.

4. Exposing your baby to mirror for self-observation

Placing a mirror at some distance, or maybe an unbreakable mirror in front of your baby while she is playing will help your baby watch self movements and expressions, which in turn will enhance her sensorimotor faculties.

5. Playing with toys that make a sound 

Play is one of the best methods for your child to develop. Playing with toys that make sound help her receive a stimulus for responding. This kind of activity helps in the development of overall sensory faculties like vision, hearing, tactile, etc. along with the coordination of motor movements. Hence, cognitive development occurs. So take a rattle and shake it to grab her attention. Play with it, move it vertically or horizontally to watch if your baby is tracking it with her eyes.

6. Singing to your baby

Playing music and singing to your baby not only stimulates her cognitive skills but also helps release stress by calming down her nervous system. Music and singing help your baby enjoy, calm down, relax, and engages her sensory process that often motivates her to respond happily. It is also very natural for you to hum a song to your cutie pie when she drops off to sleep. Sing to her when changing her diaper or in a car and see the magic! Introduce her to some interesting music since these new sounds will stimulate her to learn more.

“Respond to Baby as if you were having a conversation. Babbling is a baby’s attempt to start to learn words through tongue placement and jaw development, so use it as a way to engage the child”

Jenn Berman, Ph.D., Parent Advisor
7. Massaging your baby on a regular basis

Massaging your baby is one of the most simple and common activity, which is one of the essential one to help develop her overall sensory-motor coordination. Regular massage not only stimulates your baby’s physical growth but also strengthens her tactile sensory system and hence, determines her cognitive faculty development. 

When to consult a doctor

Before rushing off to the doctor, we need to understand that each baby develops at her own pace…some may start off a few activities sooner than her peers and be a little slower in some activities. That does not mean there is a child development delay. Sooner or later she will catch up to the broad parameters and guidelines. Still, here are some issues which should concern you and prompt you to book an appointment with your doctor:

  • If your baby doesn’t seem to watch your face when you are speaking to her by 2 to 3 months
  • She is not startled by a noise or appears not to hear any sound
  • Not smiling at three months
  • Doesn’t stop crying even after you try to soothe her
  • Usually not calm, especially when picked up by others
  • Doesn’t follow any moving object that is within her line of sight

Though a child development delay can be distressing, there are enough supportive therapies that will help your little one catch up. It will require immense patience and love from you–something that all moms have in surplus!!! So, happy parenting and enjoy with your baby.

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