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11/29/23 blog post

let's talk about object permanence

mom and baby playing peek-a-boo

The first year of a child’s life is filled with so many exciting milestones. Your tiny kiddo learns so many things in this early stage of life, from how to sit up, to recognizing certain voices and waving “bye-bye.”

Object permanence is another important milestone many babies reach during their first year. Object permanence is when a child understands that something still exists, even when they cannot see it. While this is an important concept for babies to learn, it can also create some challenges along the way.

Mary Beth DeWitt, PhD, division chief of psychology at Dayton Children’s Hospital, offers some additional information and ways to help your baby understand object permanence.

what is object permanence?

Object permanence is a concept that helps babies know that even if they can’t see something, it isn’t gone forever. If you hide a toy or walk out of the room, a baby that understands object permanence likely will not become anxious about it.

Like other milestones, babies learn object permanence through their senses and motor movements. There is no universal timeline for a baby’s development, but understanding object permanence can happen as early as 4 to 7 months for some babies. Other babies may develop object permanence later, when they are 8 to 10 months old.

what are signs a baby has learned object permanence?

Even before they can talk, babies can show that they understand object permanence in a few different ways. If you hide a toy from your baby, and they go to look for it, it is a good sign that they remember the toy even when it is out of sight. Additionally, if your baby crawls after you once they are mobile, they probably understand that you’re still around, even if they can’t see you.

object permanence and separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is a very common developmental stage in babies and toddlers that usually emerges around 6 to 9 months, and again around 18 months.

Babies who don’t understand object permanence may become upset and anxious when their parents are out of sight. Your child might not know how long the separation will be, even if you only walk away for a minute! Over time and as they develop object permanence, babies will begin to understand that when their parents leave, they will come back.

what can I do to help my baby understand object permanence?

There are many fun and interactive ways parents can help their babies explore this concept! A few of these might include:

  • Playing peek-a-boo with your baby
  • Using pop-up toys and peek-a-boo pop-up books during play time
  • Hiding their toys in plain sight and helping them find it (“There it is!”)

when should I be concerned about my baby’s development?

Object permanence and cognitive development is a process! It will take time and every baby develops skills at slightly different rates. If you are concerned about other developmental delays, such as not crawling, walking, babbling or soothing, talk you your pediatrician.

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Mary Beth DeWitt, PhD.

division chief behavioral health, psychology
view full bio