Development of the Sensory Motor Stage: Examples and Explanations


The sensory motor stage is a crucial period in a child’s cognitive development, which occurs between birth and the age of two. During this stage, infants gradually develop their sensory and motor skills, gaining the ability to perceive and interact with their environment. In this article, we will explore the various examples and aspects of the sensory motor stage, providing detailed explanations for each subtopic.

1. Reflexes and Primary Circular Reactions

At the beginning of the sensory motor stage, infants exhibit reflexes, which are involuntary responses to specific stimuli. Examples of reflexes include the sucking reflex, which helps with feeding, and the grasping reflex, where the baby automatically clasps objects placed in their palm.

As infants grow, they start to engage in primary circular reactions. These are repetitive actions that the baby performs on their own body or objects around them. For instance, a child might repeatedly kick their legs or shake a rattle to produce a sound. These actions provide the baby with a sense of pleasure and help them learn about cause and effect.

1.1 Sucking Reflex

The sucking reflex is one of the earliest reflexes observed in infants. It involves the automatic sucking motion that babies make when their lips or mouth are touched. This reflex is essential for feeding and ensures that infants can obtain nutrients from breastfeeding or bottle-feeding.

The sucking reflex is triggered by stimuli such as the touch of a nipple, a pacifier, or even a finger. When the baby’s lips are touched, their mouth automatically starts to suck. This reflex is present from birth and gradually disappears as the infant develops more voluntary control over their sucking motion.

1.2 Grasping Reflex

The grasping reflex is another prominent reflex seen in newborns. When an object is placed in a baby’s palm or fingers, they instinctively close their hand around it. This reflex is an important survival mechanism that allows infants to hold onto objects and be supported during early interactions with their environment.

The grasping reflex is triggered by the sensation of pressure against the palm or fingers. It is strongest during the first few months of life and gradually diminishes as the baby gains more voluntary control over their hand movements. This reflex also plays a role in the development of fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

2. Object Permanence and the Emergence of Secondary Circular Reactions

As infants progress through the sensory motor stage, they begin to develop an understanding of object permanence and engage in secondary circular reactions. Object permanence refers to the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight. Secondary circular reactions involve repetitive actions performed on objects in the surrounding environment.

2.1 Object Permanence

Object permanence is a significant milestone in cognitive development. Initially, infants do not have a full grasp of this concept and believe that objects cease to exist when they are no longer visible. However, as they grow and develop, they start to understand that objects continue to exist even when they are hidden or out of sight.

For example, during peek-a-boo games, infants gradually learn that their caregiver is still present behind their hands, even when they momentarily disappear from view. This understanding of object permanence lays the foundation for more complex cognitive abilities and problem-solving skills.

2.2 Secondary Circular Reactions

Secondary circular reactions occur when infants intentionally repeat actions that have interesting or enjoyable outcomes, not just on their own body but also on objects in their environment. These actions help infants explore and learn about cause and effect relationships.

For instance, a baby might repeatedly drop a toy from a highchair to observe how it falls and makes a sound upon hitting the ground. They enjoy the reaction caused by their action and become increasingly intentional with their behavior. Secondary circular reactions pave the way for the development of more complex sensorimotor skills and problem-solving abilities.

3. Tertiary Circular Reactions and the Beginning of Representational Thought

In this stage of sensory motor development, infants start to engage in tertiary circular reactions and demonstrate the beginning of representational thought. Tertiary circular reactions involve active exploration and experimentation with objects and the environment, while representational thought allows infants to use mental symbols to represent objects and events.

3.1 Tertiary Circular Reactions

Tertiary circular reactions occur when infants intentionally vary their actions to explore different outcomes. They actively experiment with objects and engage in trial-and-error learning. These actions help infants develop a deeper understanding of cause and effect relationships and expand their problem-solving skills.

For example, a child might try different ways to stack blocks to create a tower, observing how the tower’s stability changes with each variation. This trial-and-error process allows infants to develop more refined motor skills and problem-solving strategies.

3.2 Representational Thought

Representational thought is a cognitive milestone that emerges towards the end of the sensory motor stage. It involves the ability to use mental symbols to represent objects, events, and actions that are not immediately present. This mental representation enables infants to think and plan without relying solely on their immediate sensory experiences.

An example of representational thought is when a child uses a doll or a stuffed animal to represent a person or a caregiver. They might engage in pretend play, imitating actions and interactions they have observed. This symbolic play demonstrates the ability to mentally represent and manipulate ideas and concepts.

4. FAQs

4.1 What are some other reflexes observed in the sensory motor stage?

In addition to the sucking and grasping reflexes, other reflexes commonly observed during the sensory motor stage include the rooting reflex (turning the head towards touch on the cheek), the Moro reflex (startling response to sudden movements or loud noises), and the Babinski reflex (toes fan out when the sole of the foot is stroked).

4.2 How does the sensory motor stage contribute to overall development?

The sensory motor stage is crucial for the development of various cognitive skills, including sensory perception, motor coordination, problem-solving, and understanding of cause and effect relationships. It lays the foundation for higher-level cognitive abilities and provides the building blocks for future learning and development.

4.3 What factors influence the pace of sensory motor development?

The pace of sensory motor development can vary among infants and is influenced by factors such as genetic predispositions, environmental stimulation, and opportunities for exploration and interaction. Providing a rich and supportive environment that encourages sensory exploration and motor development can positively impact the pace of development.

4.4 Can sensory motor development be delayed or disrupted?

Yes, sensory motor development can be delayed or disrupted due to various factors, including genetic disorders, neurological conditions, sensory impairments, or a lack of appropriate environmental stimulation. Early identification and intervention can help address developmental delays and support optimal sensory motor development.

4.5 How can parents and caregivers promote sensory motor development?

Parents and caregivers can promote sensory motor development by providing infants with a safe and stimulating environment that encourages exploration and interaction. Engaging in interactive play, offering age-appropriate toys and objects, and providing opportunities for movement and physical activity can support the development of sensory and motor skills.

4.6 What are the long-term implications of sensory motor development?

Sensory motor development sets the stage for subsequent cognitive, social, and emotional development. It provides the foundation for higher-level cognitive functions, such as language acquisition, problem-solving, and abstract thinking. Strong sensory motor skills also contribute to physical coordination, body awareness, and overall well-being throughout life.


The sensory motor stage is a critical period in an infant’s cognitive development, where they progressively develop sensory and motor skills. From reflexes and primary circular reactions to object permanence and representational thought, each phase of the sensory motor stage plays a vital role in the child’s cognitive growth. By understanding and supporting this stage, parents and caregivers can provide the necessary environment for infants to thrive and lay the foundation for future learning and development.

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