Case study of infancy

The first two years are very important in a child development. In this essay you will find the key concepts and theories of cognitive, social and emotional development in infancy. I am going to explain what cognitive development is and focus on cognitive theory of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget and acquisition of language and perception. This essay will tell you what are the most common emotions of infants and what can causes it. Also, it will introduce you to psychoanalytical theories of a child development by Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson and the differences between it. What is more, I will explain what attachment is and the importance of it, also, explain Bowlby’s attachment theory and how attachment develops during the first two years. In this essay I will explain why social workers need to know child development theories and why they may come in contact with the infant and his or her family.

Infancy. Infancy is the period of human development from birth to around 18 – 24 months. The period of infancy is loosely defined and depends on social convention. Infants depend on more mature caregivers to meet all their needs, who support their development (Davies, 2008).

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One of the main issues of development is nature versus nurture. The supporters of nature emphasize the importance of genes and biology. According to them, all normal children achieve the same development milestones at similar times and differences among children occur due to differences in genetic makeups. Meanwhile, nurture supporters emphasize environment-conditions and events outside the person (Sigelman, 1999).

Cognitive development

Cognitive theories emphasize mental aspects of development, for example logic and memory. Jean Piaget was one of the most influential theorists of development psychology. He had been studying children’s development of logical thinking for six decades (Boyd, Bee, 2009). The success of Piaget theory is largely due to accurate observations of his children at home (Slee, 2002).

According to Piaget the child’s ability to think, reason and understand the world is rapidly growing during the first two years of life. He or she is an active participant in growth process (Slee, 2002).

Piaget claims that key elements in cognitive development are assimilation and accommodation. When a child incorporates new information into existing patterns of thought and behaviour assimilation occurs. Meanwhile, during accommodation the infant has to change an existing structure in order to deal with new information (Slee, 2002).

‘Piaget believed that the process of learning is intrinsically satisfying to the infant. Moreover, the first 18 months of life represent enormous gains in the infant’s intellectual development.’ (Slee, 2002, p.143)

Piaget divided cognitive development into four major periods. The period from birth to age 2 is called sensorimotor stage (Sigelman, 1999). Throughout this stage the infant is actively discovering about the world and his or her effects upon it. (Durkin, 1995) In this period intelligence is manifested in action (Mussen, Conger, Kagan, Huston, 1990). It is divided into 6 substages (Slee, 2002).

During substage 1(0-1 months) reflexes, for example sucking, are being used in order to assimilate their experience of the world. During first month reflex, such as sucking, is modified and becomes more efficient. But not all reflexes change in this substage (Slee, 2002).

According to Piaget in substage 2 (1-4 months), the key element is a repetition of movements, or primary circulation reactions. It involves only infant’s own body, for instance, infant finds having a thumb in mouth a pleasant sensation and if the thumb falls out, he or she will try to put it back (Slee, 2002).

In substage 3 (4-8 months) the repetition of primary circular reactions acts on the world outside the child’s body (Slee, 2002). By repeating some actions the infant tries to trigger reactions outside his or her body (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

In substage 4 (8-12 months) the infant becomes capable of keeping a goal in mind and achieving it. The baby is able to combine two schemes in order to achieve his or her goal, for example moving aside a pillow in order to reach a toy (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

Substage 5 (12-18 months) is a stage of tertiary circular reactions during which the infant is actively seeking novelty and the child experiments. (Slee, 2002) It is the time when the infant tries out new ways of playing and manipulating objects (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

In the final substage 6 (18-24 months) the infant becomes able to manipulate mental symbols, such as words and images. Symbols start to represent objects or events (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

Many studies have shown that Piaget have underestimated the cognitive capacity of children. Researchers discovered that infants better understand object movements, than Piaget suggested and imitation appears at younger age (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

Language. Piaget did not focus much on the development of language. Even though, infants make a huge progress, starting with babbling to the earliest ability to understand the meaning of individual words, to first word at around 12 months of age (Wilson, et al., 2008). At the beginning infants can understand many more words than they can use in their own speech. The infant develops a wide range of communicative gestures, before using words (Lefrancois, 1999). At this time infants tend to learn words slowly, but from 16 months to the end of second year they start acquiring words much faster. By 24 months infants are able to use 300 words (Wilson, et al., 2008).

There is also known that children begin to talk sooner, develop larger vocabularies if their parents talk to them often, read to them regularly and use wide range of words (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

In general language acquisition follows a regular sequence, although, there are wide variations in the patters and speed of language. Some children start using individual words at 8 months, meanwhile others not until 18 months (Boyd, Bee, 2009). Speech delays can be an early indicator of the child’s atypical development. (Wilson, et al., 2008)

Perception. With the help of the various sensory modalities, like sight, hearing, taste and smell, infants pay attention to the changes around them (Slee, 2002). Early perceptual learning depends on experiences (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

During first 2 months, babies are looking for meaningful patterns. Sharp-dark light contrast, which normally signals the edge of some object, stops babies scanning the world around them. Between 2 and 3months the infant starts paying attention to what the object is, rather than where the object is (Boyd, Bee, 2009). Babies are able to differentiate sound to an impressive degree. They can discriminate the loudness and pitch of sound. DeCasper and Fifer found that infant is capable to recognise mother’s voice from another female voice, but not father’s voice from another male voice. Soon after birth infants are able to identify the source of odour and react to it, by turning towards or away from it. Infants show preference for sweet substances (Slee, 2002).


Crying, smiling and fear reactions are the most popular emotions of the infant, according to the most of research .Gianino and Tronick argued that infants are capable to regulate or control their emotions, for example by turning away or sucking a thumb (Lefrancois, 1999).

‘Infant crying, explain Pinyerd, is one the infant’s main ways of communicating both physiological and psychological distress. However, not all infant cries are cries of pain, hunger or distress.’ (Lefrancois, 1999, p. 161). Crying because of hunger or pain can be eliminated; meanwhile, unidentifiable cry is harder to stop. Constant crying can be highly annoying for parents and siblings (Lefrancois, 1999).

Smiling and laughing is a core part of parent-child interaction. First smile can appear as early as two to twelve hours after birth, even though it is not a social smile, but rather a reflex. Social smile is a response to auditory and visual stimuli, for example response to a caregiver’s face. From 3 ? month the infant is able to produce selective social smile. The infants react to social stimuli that are familiar (Lefrancois, 1999).

According to Watson and Rayner, loud noises and sudden loss of support can cause the infant’s fear. To paraphrase Hebb, fear can occur then the infant develops certain expectations about the world and those expectations are violated (Lefrancois, 1999).

Psychoanalytical theories

‘Psychoanalytic theorists believe that development change happens because of internal drives and emotions influence behaviour.’ (Bee, Boyd, 2009, p. 27) According to this theory infants get more pleasure from mouthing objects than from manipulating them with other parts of their body (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

According to Freud’s personality development theory, at birth infants were equipped with biological instincts that demanded satisfaction, which was driven by self-presentation and procreation (Slee, 2002). Freud argued that there are three different levels of personality in human development: id, ego and superego (Lefrancois, 1999).

The oral stage (0-1 ? years). ‘In Freud’s theory, during the first year of life the psychic energy of the infant is focused on the mouth. Events surrounding the reduction of physic tension and attaining pleasure relate primarily to acts of feeding, such as sucking on a nipple or bottle.’ (Slee, 2002, p. 161) Freud argued that infant becomes focused on the person providing gratification and reducing the level of psychic tension. According to Freud, attachment is developing between the child and the person. He argued that the amount of gratification is very important in progressing to the next stage. To little or too much of gratification, would end in fixation at the oral stage. To paraphrase Freud it could as adults derive and undue amount of pleasure from mouth. Under gratification as adults may lead to depression, meanwhile, over gratification can cause adults to become excessively dependent upon others (Slee, 2002). During this stage the infant’s personality mainly consists if id. The infant is driven by an urge to seek immediate satisfaction of impulses. He or she does not know what is possible or impossible, has no sense of reality and conscience (Lefrancois, 1999).

Many developmentalists fault Freud for proposing a theory without hardly any evidence to support it. His theory is difficult to test as it requires studying unconscious motivations and unseen id, ego and superego (Sigelman, 1999). On the other hand, his theories helped to alert parents and those working with children about the importance of the first years of life and rich emotional life. It helped Erikson and Bowlby to build on Freud’s idea about the significance of the infancy for further development (Slee, 2002) According to Kegan, it is used in clinics and hospital by mental health practitioners (Lefrancois, 1999).

Psychosocial approach. Erikson was inspired by Freud’s psychoanalytical theories. But there are major differences between Freud and Erikson. Erikson concentrated on the importance of social environment; meanwhile, Freud emphasized the importance of sexuality and psychodynamic conflicts. Opposite to Freud, Erikson was concerned with the healthy personality (Lefrancois, 1999).

According to Erikson there are 8 human development stages (Lefrancois, 1999). Erikson like Freud believed that every stage had crucial issue, which had to be dealt with before moving to the next stage (Slee, 2002).

Basic trust versus (0-1 ? years). According to Erikson, during this stage the main issue is the development of a sense of trust. The development of a sense of trust depends on the quality of care rather than quantity the infant receives (Slee, 2002). ‘The infant is initially faced with a conflict between mistrust of a world about which little is known and an inclination to develop a trusting attitude toward that world – hence mistrust.’ (Lefrancois, 1999, p. 35) At this point a primary caregiver – usually mother, is the most important person. The relationship between caregiver and the infant determines the resolution of the conflict between trust and mistrust and realization that the world is predictable, safe and loving. There is a risk of the infant growing up mistrustful and anxious, if the crucial issue of the stage is not resolved (Lefrancois, 1999).

Many people found Erikson’s theory more acceptable than Freud’s, as it emphasize the interaction of biological and social influences. At the same time, despite providing a useful description of human personality development, it still does not explain how this development comes about (Sigelman, 1999).


‘An attachment is an emotional bond in which a person’s sense of security is bound up in the relationship.’ (Bee, Boyd, 2009, p. 150) The infant forms a special relationship with caregivers and experiences pleasure and security in their presence, but anxiety and distress when they are gone (Bremner, Fogel, 2007).

John Bowlby has developed the most influential theory of parent/child and other relationship attachment. His attachment theory was based on ethological and psychoanalytical theories and modern cognitive psychology (Sigelman, 1999). Bowlby argued that attachment to one or more caregivers is genetically programmed in everyone. According to Bowlby infants behave in a way to ensure the proximity of the caregiver. In order caregivers to respond, infants cry, cling, smile or babble. As a result of this behaviour, attachment gradually develops. This kind of behaviour is directed to a particular person, preferably to a mother, than strangers. Attachment starts to be organized some time during second six months (Slee, 2002).

Bowlby divided infant’s development of attachment in 4 phases (Boyd, Bee, 2009):

Nonfocused orienting and signalling phase (birth to 3 months). In order to draw the attention and signal their needs infants cry, smile and make eye contacts (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

Focus on one or more figures phase (3to 6 months). Infants concentrate ‘come here’ signals to people with whom they spend most of the time. Meanwhile, response to unfamiliar people becomes less common (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

Secure base behaviour phase (6 to 24 months). The infants start to seek proximity by following and clinging to caregivers, especially when they are anxious, hungry or injured. This behaviour is directed to a primary caregiver and only others, if the primary caregiver is not available or not responding (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

Internal model phase (24 months and beyond). Infants learn how an anticipated action might affect the bonds they share with caregivers (Boyd, Bee, 2009).

To sum up, according to Bowlby attachment is a part of our evolutionary heritage. With the help of interaction of biological and environmental forces attachment develops during infancy. Later development and quality of relationship is determined by the first attachment relationship between the infant and the caregiver (Sigelman, 1999).

Some theorists argue, including Piaget, that the infant’s relationships with peers are at least as significant as the parent/infant relationship. They argue that those relationships contribute differently to development (Sigelman, 1999).

Social work with infants

When we talk about social work with infants, the family of the baby is a part of it. Social workers safeguard children and prevent them from suffering. It is crucial for a social worker to know the child development theories in order to undertake assessments, which includes seeing, observing, engaging, talking and doing various activities with the child (O’Loughlin, 2008).

Social worker may come in contact with the infant and his family if the infant was damaged before birth (for example foetal alcohol syndrome), parents experience mental illness or misuse of alcohol or drugs. Due to issues that parents face, the infant may be harmed as the needs of the child is not met, for example not dressed properly, nappies are not changed, malnutrition, staying in a not safe environment. Due to these circumstances infant’s cognitive development might be delayed. Depressed mothers can interact with the child less or express anger, which may lead to insecurely attached children (O’Loughlin, 2008). Some parents may be too immature or preoccupied by personal problems to give their child enough affection and care. In that case the infant is not able to develop a sense of trust and later, growing autonomy (Herbert, Harper-Dorton, 2002).

When working with the infant and family it is not only important to assess the infant, it is also crucial to assess parenting capacity. Parents should be able access and provide for the child’s physical needs. Family is responsible for child’s safety. The infant should receive secure, stable and affectionate relationships with caregivers. They should promote child’s learning and intellectual development through interaction, communication, talking and responding to the child. Parents are responsible for the infant’s ability to regulate his or her emotions and behaviour (O’Loughlin, 2008).


An understanding of infant development patterns and concepts is necessary for parents and caregivers, as well as all professionals who may come in contact with the child. By knowing them parents can create nurturing, caring and safe environment. It is useful for social workers as well, as they can assess infant and ensure that all their needs are met. Knowing the importance of cognitive development allows caregivers to support it by encouraging exploration, thinking and leaning. By talking to children more often and reading them regularly, caregivers can improve their language skills. Failure to acquire language skills can be indicator that there might be development difficulties or lack of language stimulation. Attachment development is crucial during infancy as well, especially with the primary caregiver, usually mother. It provides healthy emotional and social development and determines later development and quality of relationship.

Even though psychoanalytical theory of personal development by Freud is highly criticized, as there is no evidence to test it, it had a major impact on theories about children’s socio-emotional development.

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