Object Permanence: How Do Babies Learn It?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 21, 2023
6 min read

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 milestones in development that your infant will learn during their first year of life.

Object permanence means that you know an object or person still exists even when they are hidden and 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, they seem to believe that things that leave their sight are gone and don’t exist anymore. Once they start to learn object permanence, they will begin to look for the toy they lost or seem unhappy 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. Object permanence requires you to have a mental representation of an object. This concept of things and people in their world having permanence is also important for their emotional development, including developing attachments.

Examples of object permanence

Peekaboo is a classic game that helps babies learn object permanence. As your baby learns you're still there even when they can't see you, they will giggle when they see you again. In some of the classic studies, Piaget observed what kids would do when a ball was hidden under a blanket. If they started to look for the ball, it meant that the babies knew the toy was still present even when they couldn't see it.

You also may notice that when your infant drops a loved toy out of view, they don't look around to find it. Perhaps you take a favorite food item out of sight and your baby doesn't react to it being gone. When you drop them at day care, they may fuss as you leave and then recover right away after you're gone. It's likely these situations come up often. Pay attention to other situations that come up in your day-to-day life to see if your baby understands object permanence.

Based on his studies, Jean Piaget believed that the age for object permanence is when a baby is around 8 months old. According to Piaget’s stages of development, object permanence is the main goal for the earliest, sensorimotor stage. In this stage, infants learn mainly through their senses, including sight, touch, taste, sound, and movement.

However, more recent research shows that babies start to understand object permanence earlier, between 4 and 7 months of age. Most babies develop object permanence by the time they are 6 months to a year old.

This development milestone takes time for your baby to understand and doesn’t happen overnight. Your baby also may enjoy activities that test object permanence on some days but not on others. This change is common.

Your baby might reach certain milestones earlier or later than other babies. You needn't worry too much if your baby doesn't seem to have object permanence as early as other babies. It's still a good idea to pay some attention to milestones, so you'll notice any potential signs of concerns or differences. Anytime you have concerns, ask your pediatrician about whether it's a worry.

Playing games such as peekaboo is a fun way to help your baby practice this cognitive skill. Activities, books, and games that involve things that are hidden and then reappear 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. Take 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 one of their favorite toys. 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.
  • Object permanence box. This is a classic toy used in Montessori classrooms. Your child will drop a ball into a wooden box with a perfectly sized hole at the top. At first, the ball disappears into the box, but then it rolls back out the other side. As the ball reappears, babies start to develop an understanding that the ball is still there even in those short moments when they can't see it.

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, such as 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 and ADHD

There is a popular idea that people with ADHD have trouble with object permanence. The notion is that they may forget or lose things because once they don't see them, they forget they're there. But there's no good evidence to support the idea that problems with developing object permanence play an important role in ADHD.

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 this and other object permanence games will help your baby's developing brain learn.

Object permanence develops in babies during their first year. It means that they'll understand objects and people still exist even when they can't see them. You can play games such as peekaboo with your baby to help them with object permanence. But most babies will start to show they understand this before their first birthdays.

  • What's the link between ADHD and object permanence?

There's an idea out there that ADHD is linked to problems with object permanence. But there's no good evidence to back it up.

  • What is an example of object permanence?

You can tell your baby understands object permanence if they look for a toy that is hidden from view. A baby who understands object permanence may also cry more after you leave them at day care or with a sitter.

  • What is an example of lack of object permanence?

When babies lack object permanence, they will forget a toy exists if they don't see it. So if you cover a ball with a blanket, they will not know that the ball is there.

  • At what age do infants have object permanence?

Babies usually develop object permanence by the time they are a year old. It's possible they may even have it a lot earlier, by 6 months or so. The psychologist who first described it thought babies developed object permanence around 8 months. But later studies showed infants understood this concept as early as 4 months.