A psychological skill that is lacking in newborns


Many parents will have noticed that, when they are very young, their children do not cry when they are left alone in their room. This makes them think that their children are not afraid of being alone and, therefore, they do not fight much.

However, this belief is shattered when the baby, who is already a few months old, now misses them: cries, howls, throws tantrums ... What happened? Why was it not a problem to be alone before and now it is?

The answer to this we have in the idea of ​​the permanence of the object , a capacity that develops as the child goes beyond the first two years of life.

What is object permanence?

During the first months of life, when any object is out of sight of the baby, in his mind this object ceases to exist . It's like it's fading away. If you don't see it, it doesn't exist and that's it. However, after 4 months it goes, very gradually, understanding that not seeing an object does not mean that it has disappeared, but that it may be hidden. We call this object permanence, and it is a capacity especially described by the famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and the main achievement of the sensorimotor stage.

Having the ability to mentally represent an object is a fundamental aspect so that, when you stop seeing it, understand that it continues to exist. Newborn children do not have the capacity to internally represent objects, people or other elements, so if they stop seeing them they automatically behave as if they had vanished. For example, when her parents leave the room, take away the bottle, or simply do not see a toy, the baby believes that it no longer exists.

However, as he grows, he is more and more aware that not seeing something is not synonymous with the fact that it no longer exists . Although very timid, the notion of the permanence of the object develops with age. First, the baby understands that if he sees parts of a half-hidden object, it means that the object in question is there. Later, when they hide a toy from her, as long as she has seen how they hid it, she will go in search of it. By the age of two, he is able to search for objects on his own.

How is this skill developed?

In his theory of cognitive development, Piaget speaks of up to six substages in which the notion of the permanence of the object develops.

1. Sub-stage of reflex activity

This sub-stage runs from birth to the first month. The baby learns how his body can move, although his vision is still very blurred and his attention spans are rather short . It limits itself to exercising innate reflexes.

The three main achievements of this sub-stage are finger sucking, following with the eyes something that moves and closing the hands.

2. Sub-stage of primary circular reactions

It corresponds to month 1 to 4 of life. The baby sees the objects and begins to notice them more . When an object is hidden from him, the baby may try to look for it for a while, but he will not try very hard and, after a short time, he will pretend that it no longer exists. There is no permanence of the object in any way.

However, the baby does show certain anticipatory responses to familiar images and sounds, such as opening his mouth to a spoon or sucking at the air when he sees a bottle. Her actions are less reflective than in the previous substep, and she already behaves more intentionally. Find out how to use your body.

3. Sub-stage of secondary circular reactions

This stage goes from 4 to 8 months. Babies reach for objects that are partially hidden, especially in the seventh month . It is not permanence of the object at all, since if the object is completely hidden the baby will not look for it.

4. Sub-stage of coordination of secondary circular reactions

This stage goes from 8 to 12 months and we can already talk about the permanence of the object . The child is capable of recovering an object that is totally hidden in the same room, as long as he has seen how it was hidden from him.

5. Tertiary circular reactions

This stage goes from 12 to 18 months. The child is in a position to retrieve a hidden object several times within his point of view, but cannot locate it when it is outside his perceptual field . That is, if a toy is hidden from him without him seeing it and in a place that does not sound like it could be, the child will not find it. This is because the baby does not yet have the inner representation capacity to represent the object and imagine various places where it could be.

6. Symbolic problem solving

The child already fully understands the idea of ​​permanence of the object. He is able to understand that objects can be hidden in new places , that is, he can make a mental representation that a bear is, for example, inside a container, although he has never seen it there before. You can mentally represent images of the object and consider different scenarios where it could be. You do not need to have seen how they were hiding it to go in search of them.

What is the relationship between object permanence and separation anxiety?

There is a lot of relationship between object permanence and separation anxiety. Surely many parents have experienced it first hand, especially if they have enrolled their children in nursery school very early .

The first months, when they are barely a year old, they behave very well when the parents leave once they have been left there. However, as they get older there is a time when they start crying when left alone, be it in daycare or elsewhere.

This separation anxiety is explained by the notion of object permanence. The little boy begins to understand that his parents have not disappeared, but that they have left, and he does not know when they will return . That the main attachment figures leave them alone is something that babies can live with great anguish and, they can even interpret it as abandonment, which is why they start to cry.

How to find out if the baby has acquired this ability?

Although Piaget's findings have been fundamental to developmental psychology, they are questioned by many. An example of this we have in TGR Bower, who with his experiments came to find cases of total acquisition of object permanence in children as young as 3 months of age , something that is very premature considering that Piaget spoke of, at least , 16 months.

Whether it is true or not, what there should be no doubt is that each child is a world and that the speed with which they will acquire the permanence of the object varies from person to person. The substages proposed by Piaget should not be seen as the fixed and immovable normal, since there may be children that take a little longer and others that take a little less. It has even been debated whether the permanence of the object depends on cultural factors and early stimulation.

There are many games that parents can use to check to what extent their child has developed or not the first signs of permanence of the object and to see if it is advanced or a little behind with respect to its chronological age. Next we are going to talk about two very simple and easy to do at home.

1. El Cucú-tras

The cuckoo is the typical game that every father, mother, brother and grandfather has made to a newborn. It simply consists of the adult covering his face with his hands saying "Where is Menganito?" and then uncover it and say "Here it is." This very typical game may seem like a very basic thing, but if another person watches how the child reacts when the person in front of him covers his face, he will understand to what extent or not he has a slight notion of permanence of the object.

If you have not yet developed this skill at all, the moment your parent covers their face they will be truly impressed . It is as if he were wondering "Has dad disappeared? it is no longer in front of me ". More or less after 8 months this trick will no longer serve to amuse the baby, since he understands that behind the hands there is a face, especially if he continues to see the ears or hair.

2. Hide toys and play hide and seek

If what we want to do is to replicate Piaget's experiment, the best way is by using toys and hiding them. Depending on how we hide them, we can discover in which sub-stage it is . We can also play hide and seek and see how the little one reacts.

It may be that by partially hiding it, the baby understands that this toy is there, but when we hide it completely, even if he has seen how we did it, he will no longer go looking for it. It can also be done by playing hide-and-seek, making his attachment figure partially or totally hidden and the child having seen how he did it. In this case, it would be in the sub-stage of secondary circular reactions.

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