“Hey, that’s a mirror!”
“Do I see something in that mirror?”
“Oh wow! That’s me!”
Have you seen the light bulb moment where your baby looks in the mirror and has the, “Who is that handsome baby” look on their face? There’s an awkward developmental phase that occurs between birth to 4 years old where your baby goes from, “There’s a baby in front of me,” to “That kid is me!” and the sense of self develops.
Self awareness is confusing. There’s a hand, but is that hand mine? I see a baby, but who is it? Does that picture I see in the mirror exist when I’m not looking in the mirror? It’s an amazing process! But that’s a lot for a little human to figure out! Starting at birth, your baby’s self awareness begins to develop.
Level 1: “Hey, that’s a mirror!”
From birth, babies can recognize the mirror as a static item, and this item is an extension of the world around them. At this stage though, the mirror contains nothing more and your baby does not recognize any of the items in the reflection. Ever wonder how a bird can fly into a window? Birds do not have this skill! Birds can see a reflection, but do not recognize the reflection exists within a concrete object, a mirror. Amazingly though, from birth your baby is already exhibiting a basic level of self awareness by recognizing their presence within an environment and the existence of external objects within their environment.
Level 2: “Do I see something in that mirror?”
Around 2-3 months your baby begins to recognize and consciously use their bodies. They learn that by controlling their movements they are able to manipulate the environment around them. With this increased awareness of their surroundings, your baby begins to recognize that there’s in fact an image in that mirror… and it can move! At this time, your baby is beginning to not just recognize that things exist within their environment, but things exist relative to where their body is and their body can impact items in their environment. This is seen when your baby reaches for or bats at items.
Between 2 months to around 1 year old, your baby will continue to try to touch the object in the mirror and will even begin to recognize that object as a baby and even a playmate! But they’ll still be left wondering who that handsome baby is for a little while longer.
Level 3: “Oh wow! That’s me!”
Around 1 year and 18 months old, your baby begins to recognize that the baby in the mirror might be them them! You'll notice your child moving and even staring at themselves a little longer, but it is as if they're watching a video of themselves and nothing more. But this is where true identification of self really starts to occur!
Between 18-24 months your child not only recognizes that image of themselves as "me," but that is me right now and not just an image or a video!
So What is There to Do?
Over the next few years, your child develops a more sophisticated sense of self where they not only recognize the image in the mirror as “me,” but they learn that the “me” they see in the mirror is the same version of “me” that everyone else sees all the time.
Phew, talk about some deep stuff for your tiny! But there are ways you can work to help your child bridge the gap and make these philosophical blunders a little more bearable.
Play in front of a mirror. At first, your child will look longer at your face in the mirror because it is an image they recognize. Make faces, point to and label what you see, have fun!
Sit your baby in front of a mirror or let them do tummy time in front of a mirror. While your baby may not recognize that moving image as themselves, they’ll begin to be entertained by the show they’re putting on in the mirror.
Sit your baby in front of a mirror and encourage them to touch it. This helps your baby bridge the gap between “there’s a baby in front of me” and “oh, it’s just a reflection.”
Do the mirror test with your baby. Place a piece of painters tape, or put a swipe of lipstick on their nose. Do they try to take it off? If they do, they recognize that the face they see in the mirror is in fact theirs and they see something on their face that doesn’t belong there.