It’s no secret that not every child speaks their first word by their first birthday. But most children do communicate by the time they turn one. Children communicate their wants, needs and ideas in a variety of ways before speaking. We call these nonverbal precursors to speaking prelinguistic skills and my favorite of these as a speech pathologist is pointing.
Why does pointing matter?
Pointing is an important prelinguistic skill because it is a clear and effective means of establishing joint attention. I know, I’m hitting you with a lot of vocab pretty early but hang with me here! Joint attention is actually a pretty easy concept. To put it simply, joint attention is your child’s understanding that the two of you can attend to the same object or activity. So your child understands that you and him/her are focusing on the SAME THING. This concept is absolutely vital to language development.
It is easier for a child to respond to a joint attention request than to initiate it. For example, a parent may point to an airplane and say “Look! An airplane!”. The child would then respond by following the parent’s point and eye gaze to look at the airplane. Around when a child turns 1, he or she would begin to look back and forth between the object and the parent to ensure they’re both still attending to the same thing.
To establish joint attention means that the child is requesting the parent attend to something. Again, this is more difficult because the child initiates the request. An example may be a baby pointing to a desired toy or a toddler pointing to a dog walking by.
It is important that children establish joint attention both to make requests AND to show objects or situations to others. This showing behavior is one of the first ways most children initiate a social interaction (rather than initiating an interaction to get something). Most children will begin pointing to objects they want around 12 months and will point to things they find interesting or funny (i.e. pointing as a train passes) by 18 months.
How to do it
I hope I haven’t lost you yet, because pointing and joint attention are actually fairly easy to practice with your little one! All you have to do is start pointing and naming things your child is exposed to every day. Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. When you and your little one are outside, show your child airplanes, cars driving by, dogs walking, trees, etc. Prompt your child while you point to each saying, “Look! A [insert object]”. Then look back and forth between the object and your child as you name it again, pointing the entire time. Once your child is attending to your pointing, you can encourage your child to point by prompting “where’s the [insert object]?”. Wait 5-10 seconds for a response and if your child doesn’t respond, gently take his or her hand and help your child point to the object.
2. When looking at books with your child, point to pictures on the page as you name them. After doing this for a few, gently take your child’s hand and help him/her point to pictures while you name each one.
3. When Van gets upset, one of the ways we calm him down is by carrying him and showing him our photos around the house. We have this collage frame of his newborn pictures that he especially loves because it has all of his favorite people (Mommy, Daddy, and Maxx the dog). We point to each person and name him/her. We’ve done this since he was only a few months old, and as he grew older he started pointing to other pictures around the house he wanted us to look at and name.
4. Offer your child choices. Snack time is great for this one! For babies and young toddlers, it may help to offer a drink and a snack (i.e. “Do you want milk or an orange…milk or an orange”). Hold up both objects while you offer the choice, but move the one you name closer to your child as you offer it. As always, accept any and all communication attempts (reaching and grunting, babbling, etc.), just model pointing to the one your child chose as you give it to him/her (i.e. Pointing to the orange and saying “Orange. You chose an orange.” Then give your little one the orange.). If your child immediately requests the alternative choice, that’s fine too! Remember, our goal is communication, so as long as they do something to tell you what they want, we are happy!
5. Name and point to toys around the room. Prompt your child by asking where toys are (I.e. “Where’s ball”). Count to 5 in your head to give your child time to respond then point to the object named while looking at the object (“There’s ball! Ball.”). If your child doesn’t look, keep pointing while you walk/carry your little one over to the object and name it again as you retrieve it.
6. Lastly, try to NEVER ignore your little one when they point to something! At this age your child may not have the words to say whatever they want or are interested in. If children feel like they aren’t getting their message across by pointing, they’ll try something else (yelling, screaming, trying to get whatever it is themselves, etc.). And worse, they’re not learning the value of communication. Even if it’s something they can’t have, acknowledge the communication attempt by naming it, letting them know they can’t have it, and redirecting! It will help reduce frustration in the long run!
I hope these suggestions will help you get your little one pointing to objects and situations! As always, these tips will work best if you choose one or two to do with your child every day. Let me know how it goes!
And for now my baby bump looks more like a food baby, but I figured I’d share a pic for anyone not following me on instagram yet!