Developing Self-Awareness: When Does Your Baby Recognize Herself in a Mirror?

Saniya at 5 months

She is unaware that she is looking at herself.
She is unaware that she is looking at herself.

The topic of self-awareness in children occurred to me as I considered the way my five-month-old granddaughter responded to me. I began to wonder at what point babies begin to realize they are individuals, separate and distinct from the people around them, particularly their parents? At what point do they become aware that they are social beings and that their vocalizations, facial expressions, and other behaviors are social interactions between them and others? So I did some research.

I found an excellent article about self-awareness in children online entitled The Five Levels of Self-Awareness by Philippe Rochat. Here I will aim to summarize some of the main points of the article since it is a rather lengthy piece. 

The author says that the development of self-awareness in a child can be described in five stages or levels. These levels are usually completed by the time the child is four or five years old. Each of these levels can be recognized by the way a child reacts to seeing him or herself in a mirror. One way to measure this is by putting a mark or piece of post-it paper on the child’s forehead without him realizing it. Then the child is put in front of a mirror to see what he or she does. There are six possible reactions. The first level is 0 which indicates complete self unawareness. The levels 1-5 represent increased complexity in self-awareness.

The 5 levels of self-awareness in children

Level 0: Confusion

As mentioned above, this level represents complete absence of self-awareness. The child put before a mirror is incognizant of the mirror. They think they are viewing an extension of the environment instead of a reflection of it. They will not have any reaction to a mark or post-it placed on their forehead. This is similar to the reaction of pets: birds that look at a mirror in their cages think they are looking at a companion, whereas, dogs may growl at their reflection thinking it is another dog is invading its territory.

Level 1: Differentiation

At this level the child is aware that what is in the mirror is different from the encompassing environment and that there is a match between what he sees happening in the mirror and what he feels himself doing. But that’s as far as it goes.

Level 2: Situation

At this level, the individual goes beyond perceiving a match between seen and felt movements. He or she has a sense of how their body is situated in relation to other objects in the environment. For example, they will reach with their hand to touch something with some awareness of distance. This suggests some degree of hand-to-eye coordination. They also begin to have a sense of whether reaching for an object will cause them to lose balance or not.

Level 3: Identification

At this level, the child finally realizes that what is in the mirror is him or herself. At this point, if the child has a post-it on his head, when he sees it in the mirror she will reach up to remove it. This usually begins around 18 months. Most developmental psychologists consider this to be the litmus test of self-awareness. As children develop further in this stage, they may alternate between 1st and 3rd person—they may refer to the person in the mirror as “me” or at other times as “Jacqueline.”

Level 4: Permanence

At this level the child can recognize himself in photographs of when he was younger, or dressed in different clothes. His self-awareness has gone beyond just recognizing him or herself in a mirror.

Level 5: Self-consciousness or “meta” self-awareness

This level is reached by age four or five. Here the child becomes aware of how he is viewed by others. This can cause them to experience self-consciousness or embarrassment in front of others.

The article did not make it clear to me what age a baby enters each stage. I have included a picture of my granddaughter at age five months in front of a mirror. I plan to add a picture of her every few months to see how her awareness of the mirror image changes as she develops.

When I put Saniya in front of the mirror at 5 months, she showed slight interest in the mirror and the image at first, but was quickly distracted by the surrounding environment. She had absolutely no awareness of the post-it on her head nor could she recognize herself in the mirror which is what would be expected at this age. It is typical for babies in the first and second level to pay more attention to the person who is watching their moves, than to the “other person” in the mirror.

I found a book on Amazon that specifically discusses the development of self-awareness in babies is a book entitled The Second Year: The Emergence of Self-Awareness by Jerome Kagan published in 1981. The review of this book suggests that Kagan confirms the premise that self-awareness becomes apparent in the second half of the second year. I would imagine that many college textbooks about developmental psychology and child development would also have information on this subject.

Other books on self-awareness

Another book available on Amazon is Self-Awareness: Its Nature and Development by Michel Ferrari PhD and Robert J. Sternberg PhD published in 1998. This review of this book mentions that it does mention the subject of self in infants, as does The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Body Sense by Alan Fogel published in 2009. These two books appear to discuss the subject of self-awareness throughout the life span instead of being specifically geared toward its development in babies as does the book by Kagan mentioned above.

Board books designed to help toddlers develop self-awareness

Baby Faces: Eat! by Roberta Grobel Intrater
Share your baby's mealtime with ten other babies. Some reviewers of this book said the pictures were gross and contrived, while others loved it. The author has a number of other similar books in the series.

Margaret Miller also has a similar series of board books such as Baby Faces from her Look! Baby Books series
Large, crystal-clear photographs make this a standout series that looks at everything from colors to food.

Copycat Faces by Deborah Chancellor published in 1999 by DK Publishing. Containing rhyming text about feelings and expression, you can encourage your child to mimic these faces and check out her own in the book's foldout mirror.

Baby Days by Ken Karp. The reviewers maintain their babies are absolutely delighted with this set of nine board books and enjoy reading them over and over again. They even include a mirror.

I Am a Baby! by Elizabeth Hathon
This book helps babies become aware of their body parts.

Where's the Baby? by Cheryl Christian  Hunt for a hiding baby in this lift-the-flap board book. This is actually a bilingual book with English and Haitian Creole.

Other books to help babies become familiar with body parts:

Where Is Baby's Belly Button?By Karen Katz. This is a lift the flap book that helps baby find various body parts.

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes by Annie Kubler. A delightfully illustrated action-rhyme song with music.

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