Most parents know that babies start to talk and walk around their first birthday. But there are other lesser-known yet important milestones that don’t get as much attention. One such cognitive milestone is the development of what is called “object permanence” at around 6 months of age. You can tell if your baby has achieved object permanence through observation. If she’s around 5 months old and drops a toy over the edge of the bath tub, stroller, or high chair, she probably will not look for it. It’s as if the object no longer exists once it’s out of sight. But, watch that same baby a month or two later, and she will now look around to find the lost object. Her searching behavior shows us that she has an idea in her mind that the item does exist even when out of sight. Now begins many months of your baby’s delight in throwing everything you serve off the high chair, again and again and again. As frustrating as this is for you, keep in mind that your baby is now a scientist, relentlessly testing and re-testing her hypotheses about object permanence, gravity, and cause-and-effect.
From your baby’s perspective, to develop object permanence is to understand that when mommy leaves, it’s not that she no longer exists, but rather in this moment when you want her, she exists somewhere else and maybe even with someone else who is not you. The idea of availability and unavailability is born. This newfound sense that caregivers certainly do exist when out of sight often brings with it the emergence of separation anxiety and stranger anxiety. “If mommy can leave, then she might leave, and I certainly don’t want that.” Your baby protests because he longs to spend as much time as possible with his favorite person in the whole world – you!
In the second half of the first year, your baby’s ability to experience and understand the world in new ways is rapidly expanding. During this cognitive revolution, babies are also gaining more motor control and therefore more physical independence. While not all babies crawl, most meet this exciting motor milestone around 6-10 months. While all those leaps forward are exciting, they can also leave babies feeling very little in a big world.
What does all of this have to do with peek-a-boo? Children play to make sense of their own experiences and the world around them. Peek-a-boo is a fun way to help babies understand object permanence, and the emotional corollary that caregivers go away, and caregivers come back. Managing big feelings about separation from loved ones is one of the primary emotional tasks in these early years. This game helps babies and toddlers feel a sense of active participation in a “practice separation.” Babies and toddlers learn to trust, through repeated experiences of thoughtful, predictable routines surrounding separations and reunions, that mommy always comes back. Playing peek-a-boo can help your baby understand this important lesson both cognitively and emotionally.
Additionally, peek-a-boo supports your baby’s emerging social communication skills. The predictable, back-and-forth rhythm sets the stage for the verbal conversations yet to come. This is a time when you and your baby are face-to-face. Babies and toddlers want and need face-to-face interactions to learn about emotions. By studying your facial expressions, your little one is starting to understand the non-verbal aspects of social communication. Your face also serves as a mirror that helps her make sense of her own feelings. It’s a beautiful opportunity to delight in your baby’s delight.
So the next time you are playing peek-a-boo with your little one, know that you are not only having fun - you are also helping your baby develop emotional intelligence. Keep up the good work!