Infants are able to recognize the connection between pictures and real-life objects as early as 9 months old, according to a new study.

Researchers from Royal Holloway University in London and the University of South Carolina report that babies are able to distinguish between a toy and a photo of the same toy well before they turn 1 year old, they report in the journal Child Development.

Royal Holloway psychologist Jeanne Shinskey said parents and caregivers who have read picture books to infants should be able to relate with the study's findings.

"For parents and educators, these findings suggest that, well before their first birthdays and their first words, babies are capable of learning about the real world indirectly from picture books, at least those that have very realistic images like photographs," she said in a statement.

To reach their conclusion, Shinskey and her collaborators recruited 30 infants and familiarized the 8- and 9-month-old babies with a life-sized photo of a toy. The infants were shown the image for about a minute. Then, the babies were place in front of the real-life toy from the picture and a different one. The researchers focused on which toy the baby would reach for first.

Two test conditions were employed. The first showed the infants the toy from the photos and a different toy, then researchers placed each toy in a clear plastic container.

The second test used opaque containers to conceal the toys in an attempt to create a continued mental idea of the target toy.

When the toys were placed in clear containers, the babies typically reached out for the toy they had not been shown in the picture, which the researchers suggest is an indication that the novelty of the experienced toy had worn off and the new toy seemed more interesting.

When the toys were placed in opaque containers the babies showed the opposite preference, more often reaching for the toy that had been shown in the photographs. This suggests the infants had formed a continued mental idea of the toy, the researchers said.

"These findings show that one brief exposure to a picture of a toy affects infants' actions with the real toy by the time they reach nine-months-old," Shinskey said. "It also demonstrates that experience with a picture of something can strengthen babies' ideas of an object so they can maintain it after the object disappears - so out of sight is not out of mind."