Dear Visitors:
Federal funding for this website ended in 2003, therefore few materials have been added since that time. Fortunately, there is continued interest in culturally and appropriate materials, curriculum, and programs. Because of this, we have allowed this site to remain as an archive. Please feel free to use this site, but recognize that it is no longer current.

Infant/Toddler Caregiving
A Guide to Cognitive Development and Learning


The Program for Infant/Toddler Caregivers,
developed collaboratively by WestEd,
Center for Child and Family Studies,
and the California Department of Education, Child Development Division



View an excerpt from the videocassette (first three minutes).

To view the archives of the videotaped proceedings, you will need to have a RealPlayer plug-in installed on your computer. There are both free (RealPlayer) and inexpensive sale (RealPlayer Plus) versions of this player. To download the player, visit the RealNetworks Web site, choose a player, and follow the directions for downloading.


About the Authors

Section One: Cognitive Development

Section Two: Learning Environments

Section Three:Developmental Milestones

Section Four: Appropriate and Inappropriate Practices

Section Five: Suggested Resources


At a time when half of the mothers in this country are gainfully employed, most of them full time, more young children require care outside the home than ever before. The growth of child care services has failed to keep pace with the rapidly increasing demand, making it difficult for families to find appropriate care for their young children. Training is needed to increase the number of quality child care programs, yet the traditional systems for training child care providers are overburdened. In response to this crisis, the California Department of Education's Child Development Division and the Far West Laboratory for Educational Research and Development have collaborated to develop an innovative and comprehensive approach to training infant and toddler caregivers, called the Program for Infant and Toddler Caregivers. The program is made up of a document entitled Visions for Infant/Toddler Care: Guidelines for Professional Caregiving, an annotated guide to media training materials for caregivers, a training delivery system, a series of training videotapes, and a series of caregivers' guides.

The purpose of the caregivers' guides is to offer information based on current theory, research, and practice to caregivers in both centers and family care homes. Each guide addresses an area of infant development and care, covering major issues of concern and related practical considerations. The guides are intended to be used hand in hand with the Program's series of videos. The videos illustrate key concepts and caregiving techniques for a specific area of care. They are supplemented by the caregivers' guides, which provideextensive and in-depth coverage of a topic.

This guide was written by five noted experts in the field of early childhood development and care.Like the others in the series, it is rich in practical guidelines and suggestions. The information and ideas presented in this document relate to intellectual development duringinfancy, with an emphasis both on the types of activities that are naturally interestingto infants and toddlers and on the influences of responsive caregiving, the environment, and play materials on early development.

Duty Superintendent
Add Services Branch
Child Development Division
Child Development Division


Studies consistently show that a baby learns most and fastest-and will likelier remember what he learns—when hecan control what's happening .... it's those experiences he chooses (not necessarily those chosen for him) that help him learn fastest and most completely.


Evelyn B. Thoman and Sue Browder
Born Dancing, pp. 109-110

Experts in early development and care have increasingly recognized the importance of giving infants and toddlers the freedom to make choices. Yet many articles and books urge caregivers to be in charge of the kinds of stimulation that infants and toddlers experience. Caregivers have often been told to stimulate or "teach" babies early in life and to do special activities or else the children will miss key learning experiences. In addition, countless numbers of educational toys and materials have been designed to teach babies specific lessons. This push to teach and control the stimulation that infants and toddlers receive is now being balanced by a growing awareness of the effect of too much stimulation on babies. Indeed, the research literature questions the value of teaching infants and toddlers, especially when teaching interferes with children's natural learning activities. Thoman and Browder suggest that in optimal learning situations, babies are in control; and formal teaching usually takes control away from them. (Evelyn B. Thoman and Sue Browder, Born Dancing: How Intuitive Parents Understand Their Baby's Unspoken Language and Natural Rhythms. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1988, pp. 109-110.)

But if being in control is beneficial for babies, does the caregiver have any role to play in early cognitive development and learning? 'The answer is an unqualified yes. In fact, the caregiver plays a special part in the learning and development of an infant or toddler. The caregiver's role includes being responsive to the infant, interacting as a partner, setting up the environment, and providing interesting and appropriate materials. These topics are among the ones that will be covered in this guide to infant/toddler caregiving. Missing from this list is teaching. The caregiver and the infant are usually occupied with far more important matters than the contentof a specific didactic lesson. How the naturally occurring actions of infants and toddlers contribute to their early development is the subject of this guide.

Does avoiding teaching mean that caregivers should simply let babies be? Or should caregivers initiate activities and perhaps even stimulate infants? The answer to these questions is—it depends. Too often the debate on infant stimulation has been reduced to all or nothing. Some experts say that stimulation from caregivers is good; others, that it is bad. But caregivers cannot help but stimulate babies, even if they try not to do so. In caring for infants and toddlers, caregivers naturally talk, provide guidance, structure the environment, and nurture children. All of these actions stimulate babies directly or create conditions that do so. Infants and toddlers need this stimulation from caregivers to develop and thrive.

The matter is more complicated than simply deciding whether to stimulate infants and toddlers. For example, when is an infant ready for stimulation? Is the stimulation simple enough for the infant to follow and learn from? Is it interesting to the infant? Is it too loud, too bright, or too fast? Answers to such questions have to be considered from the perspective of the infant. And for that perspective to be understood, the infant's reactions to stimulation have to be observed. The infant has to be allowed to act and react. Letting the child be in control of stimulation is the key to being able to (1) understand his or her interests and reactions; and (2) decide whether a certain type of stimulation is appropriate or inappropriate.

Giving infants and toddlers opportunities to be in control not only benefits their development but also enables the caregiver, through observing children making choices, to discover how to respond appropriately and thereby support early cognitive development and learning. Knowing what to look for in the actions of infants and toddlers is helpful. Sometimes the actions of infants may appear unimportant to the casual observer, but the children are learning on their own terms—the best approach available to them. In "Discovery in Infancy: How and What Infants Learn," J. Ronald Lally illuminates how simple actions (for example, sucking on a toy) are profoundly important to infants. With an emphasis on the actions and needs of infants and toddlers, the chapter gives an overview of development during infancy, in particular the processes of learning and discovery. The caregiver's response to an infant's actions, especially when the child is expressing a want or need, is also important.

The relationship between responsive caregiving and cognitive development is addressed by Marc and Helen Bornstein, in "Caregivers' Responsiveness and Cognitive Development in Infants and Toddlers: Theory and Research." They define responsiveness, examine characteristics of responsive caregiving, and summarize research on the developmental impact of responsive caregiving. Part of being responsive to infants, the authors state, is knowing when to engage in social interaction with them.

In "Supporting Cognitive Development Through Interactions with Young Infants," Tiffany Field describes how the levelof alertness and activity of infants affects their ability to learn through interacting with an adult. A caregiver who is sensitive to such factors will be better able to engage an infant in increasingly prolonged interactions. Field also suggests how caregivers can adapt their behavior to an infant's emerging capacities.

In addition to appreciating the significance of the naturally occurring actions of infants and toddlers, being responsive to their needs and interests, and becoming partners in interaction with them, caregivers influence early development through the environments they create and the materials they make available to children. Theodore Wachs, in "The Physical Environment and Its Role in Influencing the Development of Infants and Toddlers," explores the impact of the physical environment on the cognitive development of infants and toddlers. Wachs discusses factors to consider in setting up environments for infants and toddlers and offers practical guidelines for selecting materials and toys.

The articles described previously are followed by three sections that provide additional information on cognitive development and learning during infancy. Section Three presents a list of developmental milestones related to cognitive development. This list gives a general picture of the capabilities, interests, and activities of children during the young, mobile, and older periods of infancy. Of course, children vary tremendously in the extent to which they manifest these milestones. Section Four, "Appropriate and Inappropriate Practices," spells out developmentally appropriate and inappropriate practices in caring for infants and toddlers. These practices are from material excerpted from Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8, which was edited by Sue Bredekamp and published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Practices selected to be included in this guide are particularly related to cognitive development and learning in infants and toddlers. The last section of this guide, Section Five, "Suggested Resources," provides a list of printed and audiovisual resources for trainers and caregivers to refer to for additional information on the cognitive development and learning of infants and toddlers.

Some topics in this guide are covered to the exclusion of others. Two key topics that have received limited treatment are caregiving routines and culture. The lack of attention given to these topics is not meant in any way to diminish their importance in early cognitive development.

Such routines as feeding and napping are central in the care of infants and toddlers. For many reasons experts say that routines are the curriculum from which infants learn. During routines children learn about their bodies, their needs, their likes, and their dislikes. As they eat, they discover the taste and texture of different foods. If performed in a consistent, organized way, caregiving routines make life predictable for infants and toddlers. Predictability in a child's daily life supports both social-emotional and cognitive development. The child can begin to understand and appreciate order in his or her world. Throughout this guide opportunities for one-to-one contact with a caregiver are cited as important in early development, and routines often give an infant a chance to have one-to-one time with a caregiver. The role of routines in early development, including cognitive development, is given in-depth coverage in Infant/Toddler Caregiving: A Guide to Routines, one in a series of guides developed by the Program for Infant/Toddler Caregivers.

Early development and care, of course, occur both inside and outside the child care program. The role of the child's family and culture in learning is crucial. Interaction with infants and toddlers and caregiving routines are handled uniquely in each culture. Depending on their cultural background, some families may believe that their babies learn through doing, while other families may believe that their babies learn through observing. These cultural differences are fundamental and sometimes subtle. A respectful openness to an infant's or toddler's culturally based approach to learning and discovery is an essential part of caregiving. The role of culture in cognitive development and learning during infancy is addressed in a companion guide entitled Infant/Toddler Caregiving: A Guide to Culturally Sensitive Care.

This guide explores the contribution of the naturally occurring activities of infants and toddlers to their learning and development. During virtually every waking moment, infants are learning and making discoveries, particularly when they have the freedom to choose the focus of their activity and exploration. Whether banging a rattle on the floor or looking for an object or participating in a routine such as eating, infants are involved in an important activity. Infants and toddlers benefit greatly when they have a caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to their needs and interests, who creates developmentally appropriate environments, and who introduces activities that encourage the children to explore freely and be in control of what happens. The following pages offer many insights and ideas for caregivers seeking to provide that kind of support to infants and toddlers.

View Description for this Item

Search CLAS Materials Return to CLAS Home Page