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What are newborns thinking?

Newborns enter the world with amazing capabilities. Though they may seem helpless, research shows that they possess incredible cognitive skills right from birth. Let’s explore what’s going on in a newborn’s mind in their earliest days of life.

They Recognize Faces and Voices

In the first hours after birth, newborns show a preference for their mother’s face. They will track her face and pay more attention to her than to other people. This shows an innate ability to distinguish their mother’s face from all others. Newborns also recognize their mother’s voice from hearing it in the womb. They find this familiar voice calming and reassuring in their strange new world.

They Prefer Their Native Language

Remarkably, newborns can discriminate between languages based on what they heard from inside the womb. A newborn whose mother spoke English will show a preference for English, while a newborn whose mother spoke Spanish will favor Spanish. Newborns have spent months listening to their mother talk, and they became familiar with the rhythm, tones, and sounds of her native tongue.

They Express Emotions

From the moment of birth, newborns communicate through facial expressions and crying. They express basic emotions like contentment, distress, excitement, disgust, and surprise. Newborns may cry when hungry, in pain, or longing for comfort. But they can also portray positivity through cooing, smiling, and extended eye contact. Their emotional range is part of forming attachments and bonding.

They Imitate Simple Behaviors

Newborns possess the reflex to imitate from birth. If you stick your tongue out at a newborn, they will reciprocate by sticking out their own tongue. This imitation reflects their ability to respond to and learn from their environment right away. With the help of mirror neurons, newborns can reproduce actions like smiling, opening their mouth, and poking out their tongue.

They Prefer Biological Motion

Given the choice between random, frantic motion and biological, human-like movement, newborns look longer at biological motion. For example, they are captivated by a moving hand or a human figure walking. This preference for biological motion may help promote social interaction and early language development.

They Have Numerous Inborn Reflexes

Newborns come wired with reflexes designed to promote feeding, bonding, and development. Sucking, swallowing, rooting, and grasping reflexes all help the newborn take to breastfeeding. Startle, Moro, and palmar grasp reflexes prompt alertness and interaction. Other reflexes support head control, stepping movements, and more. These reflexes start to fade around two to four months as the newborn’s own skills develop.

They Focus Best Up Close

A newborn’s vision is still quite blurry, but they see best at 8 to 15 inches – perfect for gazing at a caretaker’s face. Their pupil size and structure is optimized for near rather than far vision. Over several months, their vision will sharpen and they will begin to discern objects further away. But that initial near-sightedness ensures they see what’s most important up close.

They Sleep Most of the Time

It may seem like newborns sleep all day. In fact, they spend about 80% of their time asleep! They have shorter sleep cycles and must sleep often. Sleep supports rapid brain development and allows them to process all the new sights, sounds, and experiences they are exposed to when awake. Frequent sleeping may also help build their immune system and aid physical growth.

They Exhibit Primitive Memory

While newborns can’t form conscious memories, research shows they display primitive memory abilities from birth. Newborns recognize stories read to them repeatedly in the womb. They also remember sounds for short periods of time. And they have habituation memory, allowing them to get used to stimuli through repeated exposure.

They May Understand Some Words

Can newborns understand language right away? Possibly! Newborns appear to recognize their own name and pick out words they heard frequently in the womb. Their brains may categorize words and note the patterns, tones, and rhythms of their native language. They also respond differently to content words like “mommy” versus function words like “the.”

They Use All Their Senses

A newborn comes into the world eager to perceive it through sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. They immediately use these senses to gather information about their surroundings and the people caring for them. Senses also aid their emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development. A stimulus deprivation in any sensory channel could impair their growth.

They Possess Object Permanence

Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when out of sight. Psychologists once thought newborns couldn’t grasp this concept. But research now shows they exhibit early object permanence for items they are motivated to keep track of, like their mother. Even if she leaves the room, they recognize she still exists but just can’t see her at the moment.

They May Have Numerical Sense

Incredibly, newborns appear capable of perceiving numbers. They can distinguish between sets with different quantities, suggesting an innate sense of number. In a study where newborns watched play sessions, they looked longer when the number of objects shown at the end didn’t match the number they had seen placed behind a screen.

They Learn Through Play

Play provides an ideal avenue for cognitive, physical, emotional, and social learning. When caregivers engage in playful interactions like peekaboo or rattling a toy, newborns pay close attention. This teaches them about people and objects in their world. Play also aids the bonding process between newborn and caregiver.

They Love Being Held

Few things comfort and soothe a newborn more than being cradled in a caregiver’s arms. Skin-to-skin contact and holding provides warmth, food, and a sense of security. It regulates the newborn’s heart rate, breathing, temperature, and blood sugar levels. The motion of rocking can be especially calming. Human touch stimulates optimal growth.


While newborns can’t do much on their own, their minds and capabilities are quite impressive. From birth, they are primed to adapt to and learn from their environment through innate skills, senses, reflexes and more. These capabilities provide a strong foundation as newborns rapidly advance through stunning cognitive achievements in just the first few months of life.