Do babies have a mind?

Many people believe that babies do not develop a mind until they begin to talk and acquire the capacity for autobiographical memory, based on recollections about their life. In this post, Professor Jane Barlow, lead educator on The University of Warwick’s free online course “Babies in Mind: Why the Parent’s Mind Matters”, challenges this belief.


Babies are born with a number of innate social and cognitive capacities, which prepare them to begin building both their brain and their mind, from birth. One of these is the ability of newborn babies to imitate their caregivers when they stick out their tongue. But this is not the only way in which babies are much more amazing than we often give them credit for.

The social baby

Babies are born ready to relate. They have a preference for human faces, and are able to recognise their parents face from soon after birth. They can detect different emotions and become distressed when caregivers are socially unresponsive. And by seven months, they can take into account the perspective of others, suggesting an ability to infer other people’s mental states.

But how do these early abilities relate to the infant’s developing mind?

Unconscious internal maps

Babies use some of their innate social and cognitive abilities not only to promote but also to process interactions with their primary caregivers, storing this information in the form of unconscious internal maps. They do this using a part of the brain called procedural memory, which is unconscious, and responsible for enabling us to undertake everyday tasks without having to think about them.

These maps are known as internal working models, and two of the early maps that babies develop are in relation to themselves, and themselves in interactions with other people.

So, for example, infants who receive responsive caregiving, particularly when they are distressed, begin to build up a map of themselves as lovable and as having agency, and maps of other people as responsive and trustworthy.

These internal working models are stable over time, and provide an unconscious source of information that we draw on for all of our lives.

The infant’s mind

These maps form part of the core building blocks of the infant’s mind, enabling them to begin to negotiate the world around themselves.

This means that babies’ minds begin to develop from birth, before they have language and before they begin to use autobiographical memory.

It also means that their interactions with their primary caregivers play an important role in developing their minds.

If you’d like to discover more about the way in which parents’ minds shape their babies’ as a result of these early interactions, and even earlier as a result of what happens in pregnancy, join “Babies in Mind: Why the Parent’s Mind Matters” now.

Category Learning

Comments (8)


  • Peat Longspud

    Unfortunately, I have met several people who appear to have the mind of a baby and never developed any further than that!

  • Jean O'Keeffe

    I just spent nearly an hour in a café with my eye on a baby sitting in a high chair, his mother eating a full lunch. He took food off the table, surveyed other customers, made a huge variety of talking/appreciation noises, bounced himself up and down, watched waitresses moving around and was generally totally self contained and independent. No expressions of boredom, annoyance, need for attention, he was a regular little café goer operating in his own world. His mother made no attempt to entertain, or even talk to him and I think they both enjoyed the break! How could he not have a totally operational mind?

    • Meera

      Hey! Even I have this doubt. While travelling by flight, I had my eyes fixed on two babies, one of them was enjoying its caretaker’s company, interacting with other passengers, trying to pronounce colors, whereas the other constantly whined and shouted at his mother to lift him up and take him for a walk,he was not social at all, didnt even react to his dad showing videos from a tablet. How are they both so different? Is it hereditary(Extrovert and introvert)?

  • anony

    Many people believe that babies do not develop a mind until they begin to talk and acquire the capacity for autobiographical memory,

    The assertion seems fairly obvious to me as does the synopsis of how the mind develops. Maybe teh course will have some extra insights?

  • lucie

    Anyone who has had a child – and paid any attention to them – will know that they have both a brain and a personality from birth – and possibly before. Certainly before they start talking!

    • Isra

      I agree with this

  • jane

    Of course babies have minds and I would put them at pre-birth. How else would my pre-birth infant have known exactly when to kick my bladder in the middle of a lesson I was teaching! When born by Caesarian he was hauled out by a white doctor and cuddled by an African nurse, although he did then express his opinion loudly about the injection he was given. For the next couple of years he had a definite preference for Africans over Europeans, although parents were just about tolerated! At 5 weeks he attended his first committee meeting and was picking up when to nod at the right moment! But then I treated him as a complete human from the word go with proper language and no baby talk.

  • Kadir

    This article has given me foof for thought.Thank you for sharing it for us.