If you’ve ever played peekaboo with your little one, you’ve helped them work on object permanence. Your baby is learning that people and objects exist even when they can’t see or hear them. Object permanence is one of the development milestones that your infant will learn during their first year of life.
What Is Object Permanence, and Why Is It Important?
Object permanence involves understanding that items and people still exist even when you can’t see or hear them. This concept was discovered by child psychologist Jean Piaget and is an important milestone in a baby's brain development.
Before your baby develops object permanence, things that leave their sight are gone and don’t exist from their point of view. For example, you may notice that when your infant drops a loved toy out of view, they don't look around to find it. Once they start developing object permanence, they will begin to look for the item or express their unhappiness that they don’t have it.
Developing object permanence is important because it’s the first step to other types of symbolic understanding and reasoning, such as pretend play, memory development, and language development. This concept of things and people in their world having permanence is also important for their emotional development, including developing attachments.
When Does Object Permanence Occur?
Research by Jean Piaget suggests object permanence develops when a baby is around eight months old. According to Piaget’s stages of development, object permanence is the main goal for the sensorimotor stage.
However, more recent research shows that babies start to understand object permanence between four and seven months of age.
This development milestone takes time for your baby to understand and doesn’t occur overnight. Your baby also may enjoy engaging in activities that involve object permanence on some days and not others. This change is common.
What Can You Do to Help Your Baby Develop Object Permanence?
Playing games like peekaboo is a fun way to help your baby practice this cognitive skill. Activities, books, and games that involve things that are hidden that then appear are good choices to help develop object permanence. These games can also help your baby start to understand that even when objects or people go away for a little while, they will be back.
Here are some games you can play with your baby that help them strengthen their object permanence.
- Classic peekaboo. You first cover your face with your hands, then remove your hands and say cheerfully, “Peekaboo!”
- Peekaboo variation. Put a light cloth over your head and then remove it, saying “Peekaboo!” As your baby gets a little older, you can see if they will remove the cloth from your head.
- Peekaboo with a toy. Using one of your baby’s toys, hold it behind you or an object and then make it appear.
- Hiding and finding toys. While your baby is watching, place several layers of cloth over a favorite toy. When you’re done, encourage your baby to find the toy. As your baby learns to crawl, you can hide a few toys around the room. Let them watch you hide them. Then encourage them to find the toys as you stay by your child.
Pop-up toys and books. These types of toys have the toy hidden from sight until the object pops up, and there are books with flaps you or your child can raise to show the hidden image.
What Happens After Object Permanence Develops?
Watching your baby’s delight when they find a hidden toy or play peekaboo is exciting and fun. Yet, as your baby learns object permanence, you may notice other changes in their behavior like separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is a common part of the development process for infants and toddlers. During this phase, they may be afraid or nervous when they are separated from a parent or caregiver and may cry when you leave.
These behaviors start to happen because now your baby knows you exist even if they can’t see you, and they aren’t happy that you’re not with them. This stage is temporary. With time, you’ll be able to step away from your baby without them crying.
Object Permanence Is an Important Milestone
Understanding that people and items still exist even when they aren’t in view is an important concept that your baby will learn during their first year of life. But don’t worry — your little one will delight in activities related to object permanence even after they’ve mastered this milestone.
So enjoy playing peekaboo together. Playing these and other object permanence games will help your baby's developing brain learn.