What Factors Affect Cognitive Development in Infants?

Cognitive development -- the brain's development -- often is associated with intellectual capacities, but also includes memory and sensory development. Though many parents are interested in the way genetics affects their infants, environment strongly affects a child's cognitive development. Children raised in enriched, engaging environments typically develop more quickly than other children develop and may have higher IQ's as adults.

Environmental Stress

Typically, infants living in households with a low socioeconomic status develop slower and have less favorable outcomes than other children do, according to the textbook "Child Psychology." These children may be exposed to poor housing and malnutrition. Parents of these infants may be highly stressed and they may work multiple jobs -- which could result in having less time to spend with their children. Parents who spend less time with their kids are less likely to read, talk to and engage with their infants. Factors often associated with poverty can affect infants' cognitive development. Similarly, infants living in dysfunctional households -- regardless of socioeconomic status -- develop slower than other children do.

Sensory Development

Cognitive skills related to vision and hearing may seem like natural developments to most people in the industrialized world. However, these skills require practice and exposure to sensory input. Children deprived of this sensory stimulation may not develop regularly. When children's eyes or ears must be covered due to illness, or when children are kept in dark, quiet environments, their sensory skills may not develop regularly. Children exposed to a variety of sights and sounds, however, may develop additional skills. For example, early exposure to music seems to correlate with later interest in music, according to "Child Psychology."


Nutrition, in many cases, seems to strongly affect a child's cognitive development -- even before she is born. Unborn babies who receive inadequate protein, for example, may have slower development both in the uterus and after birth, according to neurologist Lise Eliot. Furthermore, the high-quality nutrition children receive from breastfeeding correlates with higher IQ scores later in life, according to several studies reported by Eliot. Children who are chronically malnourished often develop slower than other children do.


Environmental enrichment can strongly affect a child's cognitive development. Children whose parents read and talk to them frequently tend to have better vocabularies and develop skills like reading and speaking earlier. Conversely, television -- even educational programs -- may have a negative impact on children's development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 years old should not watch any television and that, after this age, television exposure should be limited 2. Parents interested in increasing their children's intellectual capacities should expose their babies to a variety of toys and stimuli including blocks, play letters, books and dolls.


Genetics is particularly relevant in the development of infants with developmental disabilities and health problems. Genetic health problems may limit a child's access to stimulating environments, delaying her intellectual development. Children with genetically based intellectual deficits are limited in their capacities to develop some skills. Early intervention and nurturing environments can offset some of these difficulties.