When does a child recognise themselves in the mirror

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Babies seem to have a fascination with mirrors from day 1 which is no surprise. The reflection is full of action, familiar faces and a baby.

But at what stage or age do babies realise that it’s them in the mirror and they are seeing a reflection of themselves?

This is a tricky question to answer with a stage or age which is exact for everyone, but there are interesting stages a baby goes through when it comes the self-awareness and what information they are processing from the reverse image. Let’s take a look.

Stages of mirror self-awareness

Babies do not go from not understand to understanding the reflection, self-awareness goes through these stages:

  • Recognising it’s a mirror reflection and not a real image
  • Recognising people in the reflection
  • Recognising that they are in the reflection (as if it’s a clone or a video) <– this is when they recognise themselves in the morror
  • Understanding that the mirror shows a reflection of themselves (true understanding)

Understanding it’s a mirror

Babies will learn that it’s a mirror or a panel with a vision pretty quickly. What I mean by that is knowing that it isn’t a direct field of vision and in front of them. Similar to how a window works.

Hold your baby near the mirror and you will see that they will stretch their arms out to ‘find out what this is’. Once they understand what it is they will behave differently from them on as they begin to process this new thing.

In primitive terms, this is the stage where they understand that they themselves are a ‘thing’ and the mirror is just another ‘thing’ in a world full of things.

They don’t know what it is or why it does it but they understand that it exists.

Recognising things in the mirror (first three months)

At around 3 months, your baby will be able to recognise things in a primitive way which extends to the mirror. Faces is among the first things they recognise which is likely to be their parents. At this stage, your baby will be able to recognise you, their siblings or other family members in the mirror.

What they won’t understand is that it is a reflection and they are not actually in front of them.

Despite that, they will still give out a smile or attempt to stretch out and touch the reflection.

They will not be able to recognise themselves at this point, especially since they probably don’t know what they even look like.

A big gap

At this point there is a really big gap between simply seeing something they’re familiar with and understand that it is themselves in the mirror aka self-awareness.

They will probably fe fascinated with their reflection, might even try and play with the person they see in the mirror.

Self-awareness is an incredibly complex idea and one that many in the animal kingdom never posses, and it takes time for it to kick in – babies will never have it but a toddler will, eventually.

Self-awareness basically means they understand that they are an entity with thought in a world of other self aware entities. People who are self-aware are conscious and awake that they are able to make decisions and are not their thoughts but the person thinking those thoughts.

The Terminator franchise explores this and everything goes downhill when Skynet (the computer) becomes self-aware and separate from everything else in the world.

A child can recognise themselves in the mirror when they become self-aware – but when is that?

Recognising that they are in the reflection

Between the ages of 16 months to 24 months, which coincide with them grasping language, they can recognise themselves in the mirror but not necessarily that it is a reflection.

It is no coincidence that when toddlers start to learn languages and are able to 1. Express an opinion (usually dissatisfaction) and 2. Ask a question that they become self-aware. Having an opinion is self-expression (they are different) and asking a question shows them to interact with the world as a being.

But, in the mirror there may be an odd phase that they know the reflection is OF them but it ISN’T actually them. Almost like watching a video of themselves. They know it’s them but it’s not the true them, the them they can touch is them.

In terms of the mirror, they see themselves and may even say ‘that’s me’ or ‘that’s [name]’. Even understanding their name is a sign of self-awareness. This is a glorious stage of having children as you watch your baby interact with the world in which you brought them in.

True Self Awareness

True self-awareness in a mirror may not come until they’re 2 or 3. This is the final stage when they become fully aware that the mirror shows a reflection of themselves.

A cute test is putting a sticker on their nose and bringing them a mirror, pseudo mirror self-awareness leads them to take the sticker off the reflection, true self-awareness in the mirror leads them to wipe their nose. Another test is with the use of a kids dressing table with mirrors and asking them to put the sticker on their nose.

And that’s that! The road of when a child is able to recognise themselves in the mirror is actually quite a long one and coincides with learning a language, self-expression and of course self-awareness.