Autonomous Behavior in Infants

Developing autonomy means giving a child the freedom to explore the world around her so she learns to think for herself. Although infants can’t be left to fend for themselves, they need to be exposed to opportunities that allow them to develop a sense of self. According to AskDrSears, allowing a baby to separate from a parent gradually helps to encourage a sense of independence and autonomy 3.

First Stages

Although the development of self-concept continues throughout childhood, a child first begins to develop autonomy in infancy. A training module for HighReach Learning, a North Carolina organization that develops curriculum programs for preschoolers, the first two years help build the foundation for growing independence. During the first year, a baby learns to trust his caregivers on whom he is completely dependent for his needs. According to famed psychologist Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory of human development, autonomy is built on trust. Each time a caregiver responds when he needs something, an infant’s trust in that person grows.

Toddler Years

During the years from about 18 months to 3 years of age, which is when a child learns to crawl and then walk, she can move around more independently and not rely as much on her caregivers. This also is the time when a child begins to realize she is a separate individual who can do activities on her own. She starts to develop self-awareness by comparing herself to others. Parents can help support a toddler’s growing independence by providing a safe environment that allows her to explore and test her abilities as she builds her sense of confidence.

Developing Confidence

A toddler’s confidence grows with each new task he can do by himself. While it can be hard sometimes for a parent to stand by and watch a child struggle with a new skill, stepping in to help each time won't help him learn to be independent. An excerpt from "Child, Family, and Community: Family-Centered Early Care and Education," published at, explains that a child who is firmly attached to his parent is likely to explore more than a child who feels less secure. Even if he doesn’t get it right the first time, supporting your baby in his efforts will help build his confidence.

How Parents Can Help

HighReach Learning suggests using a baby's name frequently to help her realize she is a separate person. Letting your baby see herself in a mirror can help her identify as an individual as well. Babies like to look at faces, but one day she will realize that the face looking back at her is her own. Eventually, as a baby begins to develop her self-identity, she moves more toward independence. Offering your toddler two or three simple choices gives her some sense of control which can help her develop a sense of autonomy. More than anything, communicating messages of love, encouragement and approval to your baby from the start will help her develop positive feelings of self-worth, which leads to independence.