Object Permanence: What Is It & At What Age Do Babies Develop It?

Peek-A-Boo! Learn All About Object Permanence And Your Child

December 9, 2020 Updated April 2, 2021

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Babies have so much to learn — not only the world but also how their own little body and brain works — that it’s a good thing they aren’t aware of it. Otherwise, we’d have a lot of overwhelmed and stressed infants among us (join the club, kiddos). In addition to figuring out how to communicate by talking instead of crying uncontrollably, there are so many other parts of a baby’s cognitive development. This includes the idea of object permanence.

Even if you aren’t familiar with the term itself, it’s probably something you’ve seen in action. One example? During a round of peek-a-boo with a little one. Understandably, you may still have questions. So, here’s what to know about object permanence, including its definition and the age it develops.

Looking for more ways to understand your baby? Check out our pages on baby fullnesshunger cues, and relieving baby gas. 

What is object permanence?

To break it down to its most basic definition, object permanence is the understanding that when an object, person (or persons, like parents), pet, etc. is out of sight, it doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist completely. This is something babies have to learn, and it’s an important milestone in their cognitive development. Let’s go back to the example of peek-a-boo. Before developing object permanence, a baby might cry or become visibly upset when their toy or the face of a loved one suddenly disappears. To them, it’s gone forever. But when the toy or person reappears, they have the opportunity to learn that something that is out of sight isn’t necessarily gone forever.

Object permanence is one aspect of psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Specifically, it is part of the sensorimotor stage of development, which lasts from birth until around age two. Piaget thought that children understand the world through their motor skills — including touch, vision, taste, and movement — and object permanence is an important part of that. This is because babies are essentially tiny egomaniacs. It’s funny because it’s true! They don’t understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them, or that it even exists beyond what they experience themselves. In order to overcome that, they have to develop a mental representation of an object after it has been taken away to get a grasp on the fact that it still exists.

What are schemas?

Per Merriam-Webster, a schema is defined as “a mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli.” OK, admittedly, that sounds like… a lot. But we can put it more simply! Remember that “mental representation” we talked about above? That’s the gist of schemas. They are mental pictures. In the context of this article, they’re mental images your baby has of things in their world, like a bottle for food.

When does object permanence develop?

Like any of the other aspects of a baby’s cognitive development, it’s important to keep in mind that all children are different and develop at their own pace. Having said that, there is a general timeline, and Piaget had some thoughts on this too. In his own theory of cognitive development — which was first published in 1936 — Piaget suggested that object permanence doesn’t typically begin until a baby is around eight months old. But after several additional decades of research, psychologists now think this happens a little earlier. Specifically, they believe it happens between the ages of four and seven months.

Not only that, but this part of the development process begins when a child is around two months or three months in age, when they’re starting to recognize faces and objects. And like many cognitive milestones, object permanence doesn’t just start one day, like flipping on a light switch, and immediately become part of your baby’s brain’s repertoire. It takes some time for this concept to really sink in.

What are object permanence games?

If you’d like to teach your kid about object permanence, we all know the game peek-a-boo, but here are several other activities your nugget will love. Surprise your baby with your reappearance using more than just your hands!

Outdoor peek-a-boo

This is like next-level peek-a-boo. The next time you and your dumpling are outside, hide behind an umbrella or wall and pop out to reassure your baby that you’re there. 

Hide toys

You can do the same trick with their toys. Make it hard for your child to locate their toys. This shows your kid that just because something isn’t in the spot they left it, does not mean it’s gone forever. 

Put a ball under a cup

Set out three cups and put one ball under one cup. Then switch the cups around. In front of your baby, lift each cup so they can see what’s underneath each one.

Hide a toy in a box

Put a toy in an opaque box. Then take the object out of the box and show it to your baby. Allow them to see the object in the box and then show it to them from an angle where they cannot see the toy.

What does object permanence look like to a child with ADHD?

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have a unique relationship to object permanence. They enjoy the game of peek-a-boo just as much as the next kid and understand things exist even when you can no longer see them. However, when they no longer see the object, they do not know or really consider when it is. Unfortunately, this can affect their organizational skills. For example, when they can’t find a misplaced bookbag, although they know it exists, they won’t feel the need to look for it because they no longer see it. Their relationship to object permanence is best described by the phrase, “out of sight, out of mind.”