All About Object Permanence

Object permanence is one of many significant developmental milestones you enjoy with your little one. It means that a child understands that things, and people, still exist even when they cannot be seen or heard.

When you hide a favorite toy, you can gauge a child’s understanding of object permanence by their reaction. What happens if you hide a favorite toy while playing with a young baby? They might seem briefly confused or upset but then give up quickly on looking for it. It’s literally “out of sight, out of mind.”. If they start looking for the toy, they know it still exists and wants it back!

If you have ever played a game of “peek-a-boo” with a very young child, you probably understand how this works. Another indicator is a child’s reaction when you leave the room. If the baby doesn’t respond or settles quickly, they don’t understand object permanence. They know the concept if they become upset and want to follow you.

The development of object permanence helps your baby reach even more adorable milestones, such as memory development, exploration, pretend play, and language acquisition.

Why is it important?

In the first few months of life, babies live in a world of the here and now. While they recognize some familiar faces, their memory development is in its earliest stages. They explore their world through movement and the senses.

Understanding object permanence signals an important development in an infant’s working memory. It means they can now form and retain a mental representation of an object. It also marks the beginning of a baby’s understanding of abstract concepts.

Where babies previously inhabited a world consisting only of things they could see, hear and touch, they now enter a more permanent world. With an understanding of object permanence, babies can explore and interact more complexly.

When does it happen?

Object permanence is believed to develop in infants at about eight months old. However, it can be debated that babies start to understand the concept of object permanence once they can recognize faces and familiar objects around 2 to 3 months.

It’ll take your baby some time to fully develop and grasp this concept. They might go after a hidden toy and seem entirely uninterested the next day. This is pretty common, so don’t worry!

What activities are linked to object permanence?

Any game, book, or activity in which things are hidden and reappear is ideal for developing children’s understanding of object permanence. Here are some ideas you can try:

  • Peek-a-boo. Perhaps the most common activity for object permanence. You can vary the game as children’s awareness develops. For example, pop out from behind your hands instead of simply removing them from your face. You can also put a small, light blanket over your baby’s head to see how long it takes for them to pull it off.
  • Hide and seek. Cover and uncover small objects with a scarf or any piece of fabric. Or you can hide a toy and encourage the child to find it. You need to show the object first, talk about what you will do, and encourage the child to start hunting by looking for the toy under some cushions.
  • Provide containers with small objects in them. The child will enjoy experimenting, taking things out, and putting them back in.
  • Share simple pop-up toys and baby books and books with things hidden under flaps.
  • Share action or finger rhymes involving vanishing and reappearing, such as “This little piggy went to market.”

The more difficult side of object permanence: separation anxiety

Object permanence often coincides with separation anxiety. An adult is soon ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for young babies when they leave the room. However, that often changes at about eight months old.

Separation anxiety also tends to develop simultaneously as object permanence, which may be less exciting. Now your baby knows you still exist whether they can see you.

When your baby can’t see you, they aren’t happy and will let you know immediately. This can be frustrating at home, making it challenging to leave your baby with a sitter or daycare, even when you know they’ll be completely fine. Your baby may also feel less comfortable around strangers. This can make the separation even more difficult and stressful for you both.

Try not to worry, as this stage is only temporary. Soon enough, you will be able to leave them safely in their playpen or bouncy chair as you do your household chores without having to brace yourself for that inevitable wail.

The takeaway

If your baby gets upset when you leave the room or quickly grabs for dropped snacks and hidden toys, they’re probably starting to get the hang of this object permanence thing.

You might start to see this in your baby when they’re just 4 or 5 months old, but don’t worry if it takes a little longer. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to pull the wool (or super soft 100 percent cotton blanket) over their eyes!