Childhood is the stage of life from birth to youth. However, within this phase there are also different moments that mark the rhythms of the child’s development, both physically and psychologically.

That is why it is possible to distinguish between different stages of childhood . This is a classification that both psychologists and health professionals in general take into account to understand how human beings think, feel and act when they go through their first years of life.

The stages of childhood

We will now take a brief look at these stages of childhood and the physical and mental changes that occur in the transition from one to the other.

However, it should be borne in mind that the boundaries between these phases are blurred and do not always occur in the same way; each child is a world. In any case, in all these stages of childhood we can appreciate a development that goes from the processing of information related to the senses and the present, to the understanding of abstract concepts that transcend the here and now. Unless some genetic or medical condition is present, this development will occur naturally if the breeding environment is conducive.

On the other hand, this classification assumes that children go through a process of formal education in schools; although this is not always the case, the evolution of children’s nervous systems is similar in all societies and cultures.

1. Intrauterine period

Although childhood is considered to begin at birth, it is sometimes assumed that it may begin earlier, especially in cases of premature birth . This phase includes the early and late fetal period, and involves processes of rapid formation and improvement of the senses.

It should be borne in mind that, although at this stage one is totally dependent on others, the main learning already takes place, especially through the ear. However, these are subject to a very simple and basic type of memorization . For example, at this stage the areas of the brain that are concerned with providing a basis for autobiographical memory have not yet been developed.

This stage of life is characterized by the fact that neither the biological structures of the body have matured, nor has the child had the opportunity to learn from immersion in a socially and sensorially stimulating environment.

2. Neonatal period

This phase of childhood begins at birth and ends approximately at the end of the first month. In the neonatal period, babies learn the main regularities of the world around them and the most direct communication with other human beings is established, although they are not yet able to understand the concept of “I” and “you” as they have not yet mastered language .

In addition, from the first days babies show an amazing facility to distinguish phonemes and, in fact, are able to discriminate different languages by how they sound. This is a skill that is lost in the first months of life.

As far as physical changes are concerned, it is at this stage of childhood that the growth of the whole body except the head begins. Moreover, in this phase one is very vulnerable , and sudden death is much more frequent in this space of time.

3. Postneonatal or infant period

This is still one of the earliest stages of childhood, but in this case, unlike the previous stage, the physical and psychological changes are easier to notice, since there are more qualitative changes in behaviour.

In the nursing stage , sufficient musculature begins to develop to maintain an upright posture and, in addition, at around 6 months, babbling and false words begin to be uttered. In addition, you learn to coordinate body parts so that it is easy to move them at the same time with precision (fine motor development).

Of course, breastfeeding is a very important element in this phase of growth, as it provides both nourishment and a channel of communication with the mother that allows bonding.

4. Early childhood period

Early childhood is from the first to the third year of age, and coincides approximately with the stage in which children attend day care . Here, the use of language itself begins to be controlled, although at first it is a telegraphic language with loose words and later the ability to formulate simple phrases is gained with incorrectness such as generalization (calling a dog a “cat”, for example).

On the other hand, in this phase, one begins to gain control of the sphincters and shows a strong will to explore and discover things; according to Jean Piaget, this curiosity was precisely the engine of learning.

Furthermore, at this stage thinking is fundamentally self-centred in the sense that it is very difficult to imagine what others think or believe . This does not mean that children want to harm others, but that their attention is focused on concepts that refer to oneself, since they are the easiest to understand and relate to sensory experiences.

In terms of physical changes, the size of the lathe and extremities continues to grow, and the difference in size between the head and the rest of the body decreases, although this development is slower than in previous stages.

5. Preschool period

The preschool period runs from 3 to 6 years. This is the stage of childhood when the capacity for Theory of Mind is gained, that is, the ability to attribute unique intentions, beliefs and motivations (that are different from one’s own) to others. This new capacity greatly enriches social relationships, but also makes lying more useful and effective as a resource.

In addition, here their ability to think in abstract terms is further developed , partly because of the myelinization of their brain and partly because they begin to deal habitually with large communities that are not only the father and mother.

On the one hand, myelinization makes more parts of the brain connected to each other, which allows more abstract concepts to be created from the combination of ideas of many kinds, and on the other hand, the enrichment of the type of interactions to which the child is subjected makes his or her cognitive abilities learn to perform more complex tasks.

In this phase we start to reach agreements, to negotiate and to try to give a concrete image. At the end of this phase, many times we start to try to adjust our own behaviour to gender roles , and cases of gender dysphoria often appear throughout this stage.

6. School period

The school period is the last stage of childhood and the one that gives way to adolescence. It goes from 6 to 12 years old and in this phase the ability to think in abstract and mathematical terms is very much developed, although it does not reach its maximum. This is because the myelinization of the brain follows its course (and will not slow down until the third decade of life). The frontal lobes begin to be better connected to other parts of the brain, and this facilitates better mastery of executive functions such as attention management and decision making following consistent strategies.

Moreover, in the school stage the image given begins to have even more importance , and it is a matter of winning the friendship of those who are considered important.

The social circle outside the family starts to be one of the factors that shape the identity of children, and this makes family norms start to be broken frequently and being aware of it. It is partly this that makes this stage of childhood vulnerable to addictions, which can leave significant alterations in the brain, as in the case of alcohol consumption that in many cases begins with puberty at the beginning of adolescence.

Impulsiveness is also often a feature of this stage, as is the propensity to prefer short-term goals to those that are far in the future. At the end of the school period the body begins to show the signs of puberty , marked by voice changes in boys and breast growth in girls, among other things.

Bibliographic references

  • Berk, L. E. (2012). Infants and children: Prenatal through middle childhood (7 ed.). Allyn & Bacon.
  • Cantero, M.P. (2011). History and Concepts of Developmental Psychology. Human Developmental Psychology. University Club.
  • Cromdal, J. (2009). Childhood and social interaction in everyday life: Introduction to the special issue. Journal of Pragmatics. 41 (8): 1473–76.
  • Demetriou, A. (1998). Cognitive development. In A. Demetriou, W. Doise, K.F.M. van Lieshout (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology (pp. 179-269). London: Wiley.
  • Howard C. (2008). Howard C. (2008). Children at Play: An American History. New York: NYU Press.
  • Taylor, L.C., Clayton, Jennifer D., Rowley, S.J. (2004). Academic Socialization: Understanding Parental Influences on Children’s School-Related Development in the Early Years. Review of General Psychology. 8 (3): 163–178.