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ParentingHow Do Babies Learn? A Primer for Parents

How Do Babies Learn? A Primer for Parents

It may seem surprising that your tiny infant, who seems to do little more than eat, sleep and poop is, in fact, learning every waking minute. Babies are built for learning, and everything they see, hear and feel is information about what is happening around them—and helps them learn to communicate their own needs and interests. 

There’s a lot of learning that happens in the first few years of life, which are marked by rapid brain development. As for helping your baby learn? Remember: you are your baby’s first (and favorite) teacher. But that doesn’t mean you have to start reading Ovid aloud from day one. What your little one really needs is just your loving attention, mama. Focus on plenty of play, reading, talking, singing and lots of snuggles, and marvel as they soak it all up. Here, we’ll outline more ways to support baby learning and showcase the key baby learning milestones along the way. 

How babies learn

Babies learn in several ways: Through their senses, play, social interactions and problem solving

By using their senses, babies gather information about the world, absorbing all the sounds, sights, textures, tastes, and smells around them. This sensory input forms the foundation of their learning.

Babies also learn through actively engaging with their environment. Throughout their first year of life, they’ll learn to use their hands, mouths and bodies to manipulate objects, make discoveries, and develop their motor skills, in what’s known as the sensorimotor stage. They’ll figure out how to shake rattles, grasp toys, giggle, and eventually walk, all within a relatively short period of time. 

Social interactions also play an important role in a baby’s learning and development. Babies have the ability to recognize the faces and voices of their caregivers, and in turn learn language, communication and social cues through what’s known as responsive interactions. When you respond to a baby’s cries or coos, your baby learns to respond with even more advanced language sounds. This type of learning continues throughout early childhood—it doesn’t end in infancy. Singing, reading aloud, talking and playing peek-a-boo (that old standby!), are simple yet powerful ways to foster language development, emotional connections and a secure attachment. 

It’s also true that babies are natural problem solvers, constantly testing and experimenting. Your lovebug is a tiny trial-and-error expert, dropping that spoon over and over not to frustrate you but to simply figure out what happens next. 

How to support baby learning

Brain development is rapid in the early years, and every experience, whether playing with toys, exploring the natural world, or interacting with others, shapes babies’ neural pathways, forming the building blocks of future learning. 

One key to supporting babies’ learning and brain development is through the use of repetition and routine. Engaging in familiar activities and rituals helps babies develop a sense of predictability and order. By repeating actions and experiences (that might look like reading the same board books again and again), babies reinforce their understanding of concepts, develop skills and gain confidence.

You’re automatically supporting your baby’s learning by interacting with and involving them in your daily activities, but there are a few sweet games and toys to try to make learning even more fun—for both of you.

Baby learning games and activities

1. Dramatic storytime

Add an extra element to storytime by incorporating different tones, volumes and voices. This will activate your child’s cognitive skills and boost their listening and focus. For bonus points, work in sound effects to make the pictures more engaging, too.

2. Bounce around

Once your child is able to roll a ball, show them how you can bounce the ball on the floor and have it rebound against the wall to bounce back to you. Say “boom” when the ball hits the floor. Watch their reaction and repeat several times. Let them have a turn, continuing to say “boom.” Finally, bounce the ball, but be silent. See if they try to say “boom” and applaud all attempts! 

3. Sing-along

Nursery rhymes and classic children’s songs immediately engage little ears with their simple melodies—and support language comprehension through rhyming and repetition. Teaching babies basic hand movements allows them to participate in songs, even before they have the verbal ability to sing along.

Baby learning toys

Infantino Textured Multi Ball Set, one of the best developmental toys for babies



Encouraging sensory exploration is a huge part of the Montessori philosophy, as well as an important part of every baby’s development. These sensory balls are brightly colored, have varied textures, and are perfectly sized for chubby little hands.

Fat Brain Toys Tobbles Neo

Fat Brain Toys


This gravity-defying stacking toy is great for babies who are working on honing those fine motor skills. As they explore each “Tobble” they can experiment with stacking, rolling, balancing and toppling.

Skip Hop 3-Stage Explore & More Follow-Me Bee

Skip Hop


Busy babes will love this grow-with-me bumble bee! It offers three stage-based ways to play, from plucking out the easy-to-hold bee rattle which wobbles but doesn’t fall over, to crawling after the cloud as it moves in circles or all about the room. It’s also got lights, tunes and buzzing sounds that are sure to delight.

PIccalio Pikler Triangle



From the makers of our favorite convertible learning tower, every aspect of the Piccalio Mini Climber Pikler Triangle Set is designed to help little climbers learn and grow. From the well-proportioned dimensions that make it easy and safe to explore to the dual top rung system which offers extra stability when they reach the peak, there’s absolutely nothing we’d change about it! What’s more, the included reversible ramp gives them even more ways to play. On one side, they’ll find a rock wall to work on their scrappier climbing skills. On the other, a smooth slide to come back down.

First-year physical milestones: Frequently asked questions

It’s important to remember that the physical milestones outlined below are just guidelines—know that each baby develops at their own pace. Baby milestones are a tool that can be used alongside other metrics (like your child’s growth, feeding and sleeping schedule) to keep track of their health and development. 

Aim to provide your baby with plenty of supervised tummy time and play opportunities, and support their motor development through gentle encouragement and interaction. But if you have concerns about your baby’s motor skills or developmental milestones, raise them with your child’s pediatrician, who may be able to recommend a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist, if needed. 

Q. When do babies learn to roll over?

Babies typically begin to learn how to roll over between the ages of 4 to 7 months. Rolling over requires significant strength in the neck and upper body, much of which happens through regular tummy time. Rolling over might take them by surprise, at first—they may accidentally roll onto their tummy while reaching for a toy. However, with practice, they’ll start to understand how their body movements can contribute to rolling over intentionally.

You might see your baby start rolling from their back to their tummy first, which often happens around the 4- to 5-month mark. Rolling from tummy to back usually comes a bit later, around 6 or 7 months. As their neck and core strength further develop, babies gain better control of their body movements and can push themselves onto their side and eventually roll onto their back.

For your little love, rolling over means a newfound sense of independence, as they can effectively change their position and explore their world in new ways. It’s exciting! 

Q. When do babies learn to sit up?

There’s a wide timeline when it comes to sitting up. Babies start to build their foundation for sitting up between 4 and 6 months, but typically begin to sit up independently between the ages of 6 to 9 months. Sitting up is an important milestone in their motor development journey, as it marks the transition from relying on outside support to achieving better control of their own body position.

All that tummy time is starting to pay off: By around 4 to 6 months, babies have gained better head and neck control and stronger core muscles. Babies then gradually develop the ability to prop themselves up on their forearms while on their tummy. This helps them build the necessary strength to sit up.

Around the 6-month mark, babies may begin to sit with support, such as propping themselves up with their hands in a tripod position or using pillows for added stability. With practice and time, they’ll start to become more balanced and confident in their sitting abilities.

By around 9 months, many babies are able to sit up independently without needing other props. They can stay in an upright position, balance themselves, and engage in activities while seated. This marks a whole new worldview for them! 

Q. When do babies learn to crawl?

Curious when your baby will be on the move? Many babies learn to crawl between the ages of 7 to 10 months, but it’s also normal if your baby doesn’t crawl. Some may scoot, roll or cruise along furniture until they’re ready for those first steps. 

But around 7 months, you might start to see signs of crawling readiness. Your baby may push up onto their hands and knees, rock back and forth, or pivot on their tummy. These movements indicate that they are developing the strength and coordination needed for crawling.

Then, between 8 and 10 months, some babies begin to crawl using their hands and knees, propelling themselves forward or backward. Others may opt for alternative crawling styles, such as the “army crawl” or “bear crawl.” Each baby has their own way of exploring their environment and discovering what works best for them—and it’s all normal.

To encourage crawling or similar movement, place beloved toys just out of reach and coax your little one to reach for them. Keep providing plenty of tummy time, allow them to move freely in a safe place, like a playpen or other supervised space, and support their gross motor skills through lots of play. 

Q. When do babies learn to walk? 

All babies are different when it comes to walking. Some take those first tentative steps a little earlier, and others may take a little longer to learn to balance properly. “According to the 2022 updated developmental milestones by the AAP and CDC, first steps should occur around 15 months, and by 18 months, a baby should be able to walk without holding onto anyone or anything,” says Dr. Stephanie M. Graebert, MD, a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital New Orleans. 

The age at which your baby starts walking depends on their leg strength and balance control—the ability to support their body weight and maintain balance in an upright position while moving one foot in front of the other. Remember to be patient, offer lots of encouragement, and you’re bound to see those first steps in no time.

“If your baby was born prematurely, you want to use an adjusted age for the first two years of your baby’s life when monitoring milestones,” notes Dr. Graebert. “You can calculate this ‘adjusted age’ by subtracting how many weeks early your baby was by their actual age.”

Starting as early as 9 to 12 months, many babies begin to show signs of walking readiness. They may pull themselves up to a standing position while holding onto furniture or a caregiver’s hand or leg for support. They may also begin to cruise along furniture, taking steps while holding on and gradually building strength and balance. 

Later on, between 12 and 15 months, your little one may start to take those first independent steps. They may be unsteady on their feet, but with practice and continued development of their leg muscles and coordination, they’ll gain more confidence and stability, usually around 18 months.

To support your little one’s first strides, provide them with a safe place to explore, whether by babyproofing certain areas of your home or heading to a park or baby-friendly playspace. Hold your child’s hand or use push toys to teach them how to put one foot in front of another, but don’t use an infant walker, which can be unsafe. Lots of unstructured play and gross motor activities can also support this major milestone. 

Q. When do babies learn to clap?

You might start to see your baby clap their hands when excited around the age of 15 months. Clapping is a super sweet milestone in your little love’s social and motor development, as it allows them to express joy and engage in interactive play. 

Earlier on, around 9 months, some babies may start to show an interest in clapping when they see others do it, and might try to imitate it themselves. At this stage, they’re usually able to bring two objects together, thanks to rapidly developing motor skills and coordination. 

Closer to 15 months, babies start to understand that clapping is a purposeful action that can be used to celebrate or show joy or excitement. With practice, their little hands become more coordinated and clapping becomes more rhythmic. 

A good way to support clapping? Clapping along with your baby during interactive songs or play. Cheering them on and offering plenty of positive reinforcement can also motivate them to start clapping. Hooray! 

First-year cognitive milestones: Frequently asked questions

Curious about your baby’s cognitive development in the first year? It’s key to remember that each baby develops at their own pace—but providing plenty of opportunities for exploration and lots of positive reinforcement can help them learn and grow. If you have any concerns about your baby’s cognitive development, reach out to your child’s pediatrician for more individualized support. 

Q. When do babies learn object permanence?

We often take it for granted, but the concept that things exist even when you can’t see them is a cognitive milestone many babies develop between the ages of 4 and 8 months. 

Babies start to recognize familiar objects around 3 months, but around 4 to 6 months, they may begin to notice that those objects may disappear and reappear (like under a favorite blanket, or in another room). 

Later, around 9 months, babies may begin to search for objects that have been dropped or partially hidden (a great time to try out hide and seek with a favorite toy). Your little one might be surprised or curious when a favorite thing suddenly reappears. 

Object permanence becomes more fully established around 8 or 9 months. That’s when games like peek-a-boo become more fun—watching their anticipation and surprise can be super adorable. Of course, object permanence applies to their favorite people, too. Be aware that separation anxiety also tends to develop around the same time as object permanence: Your little one might cry or reach for you when they realize you’re leaving or aren’t around. Assure them that you’ll come back, and leave extra time for transitions to help process these big feelings. But know that with time, this will get easier. 

Q. When do babies learn their name?

Between the ages of 6 to 9 months, your baby may start to recognize and respond to their name. This is a big milestone in their social development, as it contributes to their growing awareness of their identity. 

As early as 6 months, your little one may start to show signs of recognizing their name, such as turning their head or responding when their name is called, though it’ll still be some time before they’re able to say their own name. 

Closer to 9 months, babies become more consistent in recognizing and responding to their name. They may actively turn towards the sound of their name, smile or babble in response. It’s so sweet to watch them develop a sense of self—they’re growing into their own person! 

Help your baby recognize their name by using it regularly in everyday activities. Say their name when talking to them, work it into songs and stories and games, and celebrate their accomplishments using their moniker. 

Q. When do babies learn to talk?

The timeline for when babies learn to talk is gradual—and can vary considerably from child to child. Generally speaking, babies start squealing and making different sounds around 6 months of age. Many babies start to babble (like “mamama” and “bababa”) by 9 months.

Later on, between 9 to 12 months, babies may start saying their first words, such as “mama,” “dada,” or simple syllables like “ba” or “da.” They often use these words to refer to their parents or familiar objects in their environment. Watching them begin to communicate and express their needs and wants is pretty thrilling. 

Their vocabulary expands between 12 and 18 months, and your child may begin combining words to form simple phrases, like “bye-bye”, “more milk” and “all done.” They may also be able to use gestures to communicate, like nodding, and follow simple instructions at this stage, like “can you find the dog’s leash?” as their understanding of receptive language grows, too. 

Between 18 to 24 months, many toddlers start to learn new words rapidly and use two- or three-word sentences to express themselves. Their speech may become more intelligible, but likely still has some cute mispronunciations. 

By 24 to 30 months, most children will have a vocabulary of at least 50 to 100 words and can have basic conversations. Sentences stretch out and become more grammatically correct. By the time they turn 3, their vocabulary will likely have expanded again, and may range from 200 to 1,000 words. (Note that there’s a wide range of normal here!)

To support your child’s speech development, engage them in conversation, even if they’re not responding yet. Add onto their sentences by saying things like, “you’d like to play ball? Let’s take your green ball outside to play.” Read aloud, sing and engage them in imaginative play. 

Also know that milestones are just estimates, and some babies may learn to talk later than others—and it’s all within the realm of normal. If you have concerns about your child’s speech and language development, such as lack of babbling or a limited vocabulary, or if they seem to be losing words, reach out to your child’s pediatrician for an evaluation—they may refer you to a hearing specialist, a speech-language pathologist or a developmental therapist. Though it can be worrying to bring up concerns about your child’s development, trust that early intervention has the best results. 

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