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Fostering Cognitive Development for Ages 0-3

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

In order to foster healthy development in your child, you first need to know what stage of development your child is in. There are three main theories of development that psychologists use: Freud's Psychosexual Developmental Theory, Piaget's stages of development and Erickson's Developmental Theory. Once you understand the stages of Child Development, you can help foster the child’s development at each stage. We will walk through each of these theories, and give examples of caregiving ideas for ages 0-3 years.


Freud's Theory

Even though now Freud and his thinking are viewed as pretty dated and very sexist, he provided the groundwork for a lot of research that has followed. It is important to look at his theory in order to understand development. The first stages of his developmental theory are the Oral Stage (0-1yo) and the Anal Stage (1-3yo).

The oral stage (0-1yo)

The oral stage is when babies are learning about their environment through tasting and sucking. At this age, babies derive most of their pleasure from eating, and therefore it is natural for them to put everything in their mouths to learn about the objects.

WHAT CAN I DO? In order to foster this as a caregiver, allow them to put things in their mouth, to bite and suck and play with it with their tongue. Make sure these objects are not able to be swallowed and that they are hard enough to not take chunks out of when bitten.

The anal stage ( 1-3yo)

The anal stage is the time that children start learning how to control their bladder and bowel movements. Freud believes that if a child at this stage is pushed too hard to learn how to use the bathroom or is not pressured enough, it will affect their behavior as an older child and adult. If a child at this age has too much pressure associated with potty training, they may develop an excessive need for order or cleanliness. A child that doesn't have any pressure, or not enough pressure around potty training may become messy or engage in destructive behaviors.

WHAT CAN I DO? Work on potty training in a way that is fun and stress-free. Start off with extrinsic positive motivators when the child is successful (ie: clapping, giving extra play time, extra story time with a caregiver). Do not punish the child for being unsuccessful. It is important to shape the behavior as well. Start off rewarding for small steps like the child letting you know that they have to go to the bathroom instead of expecting them to be able to go to the bathroom successfully right away.


Piaget's Theory

Piaget believed that development is motivated by a state of disequilibrium brought on when a person's current understanding of the world around them conflicts with reality. We achieve equilibrium again when we learn to assimilate (incorporate new ideas into our existing understanding), or accommodate (modify our existing understanding) for the new information we have learned. For Piaget, the first stage of development happens between the ages of 0 and 2. This stage is called the Sensorimotor Stage, and there are three things that children achieve in this stage; object permanence, causality, and symbolic thought.

Object permanence

Object permanence is when children start to realize that objects still exist when they are not able to see them. Children will start to look for objects that they cannot see or move their body to be able to see the object again. (people, animals, toys, etc.)

WHAT CAN I DO? To help your child learn this, play games with them like peek-a-boo, or hide an object under their blanket and have them find it. You may also create little puzzles for them like showing them an object, putting it in a box and having them open the box to get the toy. The child might need some help from the caregiver in order to facilitate learning these skills. Reward them for completing the game or completing the task by showing them that you are pleased (smiling, laughing, clapping your hands, saying "yay!").


Causality is when a child learns that they can influence what happens around them, and the idea of cause and effect. This is when children start to pick up and move objects, throwing objects and pulling things.

WHAT CAN I DO? For your child at this stage, helping foster development means allowing them to explore by moving, throwing and pulling on things.

Make sure that you are comfortable with the objects and space the child is playing in so you do not have to interrupt their learning to discipline them or keep them safe. Having a basket of soft plastic balls in a playroom, small stuffed animals to throw or toys that are velcroed together are safe ways children can learn these skills without parent intervention. This could even be baby proofing the cabinets in the kitchen except for one and filling it with plastic kitchen objects for your child to play with. This skill might also need to be taught at first, such as banging 2 objects together to show them that they make a sound, or putting objects in the child's hand and making them bang the objects together to learn the motion.

Symbolic thought

Symbolic thought is when children begin to learn language. At this stage, the child is learning that objects in their environment have labels, or symbols attached to them. They learn that words represent these objects like dog, or bottle.

WHAT CAN I DO? To help foster language development read, speak, and label (say the name of) objects in the environment for them. When reading to your child, point to the pictures and label them. When your child is babbling, use the sound that they are making and say a few words that start with that sound, (ma...mama, map, mat) or repeat the sound your baby made and say different consonants, (, da, la, ba). When you are walking around, or your baby is exploring, label what you walk past or what the baby touches. For example, if you are in the produce section of the grocery store, point and label all of the produce that you walk by.


Erikson's Theory

Erikson's theory of development is largely influenced by Freud's work. His thought is that people operate mostly out of their unconscious and that is where motivation for development comes from. Instead of stages of development, Erikson believes there are just tasks to be completed at each age. If these tasks are not completed, it creates maladaptive behaviors and thoughts later in life. There are two tasks to complete before the age of 3; trust and autonomy.

Trust vs. Mistrust (0-18 months)

Trust vs. Mistrust is the first task in Ericson’s theory. In this phase, a child is learning that they can either rely on people to meet their needs, or they cannot. This trust is developed between the infant and the primary caregiver. This phase is known as the foundation for all other development and is important to learn trust rather than mistrust. If the infant does not learn to trust their caregiver, they will mistrust others throughout their lives, or they might overly depend on others.

WHAT CAN I DO? In this phase of life, being available for your child so that you can meet their needs is the most important part. A child learns to trust when they cry, asking for their needs to be met, and they are met by the caregiver. When your child is crying, figure out what the need is to be met and meet that need. Sometimes your child just needs to be held to know that they are safe and protected.

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (18 months - 3 years)

Autonomy vs. Shame is the next task in Erickson's theory. For this task to be achieved, a child must learn that they are independent from their primary caregiver. By learning that they are independent and separate from their caregiver, they gain confidence and pride. A child who does not achieve autonomy will develop a sense of shame and doubt and lack confidence in their abilities.

WHAT CAN I DO? Allowing your child to explore and be apart from you is how they will gain autonomy. Giving them a safe space to explore, where they can come back to you if they need to is perfect for this exploration. Instead of holding your child while you are doing chores, have them crawl around or walk around. Let them play alone for a little, they will come to you when they are done playing alone.


Hi, I’m Kristina Anzell, I am a Clinical Social Worker dedicated to providing compassionate and tailored mental health support for moms at all stages of motherhood. My mission is to empower you to thrive in your role as a mother while nurturing your own well-being. If you enjoyed this blog post, check out my blog here! If you want more information or are seeking treatment, feel free to reach out!

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