Blog author: Miriam Fruchter, MA, CCC-SLP
Picture the following scene: a parent is holding their child on their lap with an open book. The parent reads the words on the page. The child points to a picture on that page, then looks up at the parent and vocalizes. The parent then nods, smiles, and points to that picture as well. The parent and child are focused together on the picture in the book. This interaction is called joint attention, the shared focus of two individuals on an object.
Joint attention is achieved when one individual alert another to an object by means of eye-gazing, pointing or other verbal or non-verbal indications. It requires the ability to gain, maintain, and shift attention. Establishing joint attention is significant for building social-communication and cognitive skills. What starts as pointing to a desired toy/object/food or reaching out to be picked up should later develop into turn-taking during a game or ‘requesting’ for help getting a particular item.
Joint attention starts to develop from infancy. Between 6-12 months, a baby develops eye gaze and acts as a passive participant during joint attention with his/her caregiver. For example, early joint attention can be demonstrated when a baby looks at his mother and then shifts his gaze to see what she’s looking at. The baby becomes an initiator in the parent-child relationship when he begins to look at an object as well.
At a slightly later stage, between 12-15 months, a baby will begin to point and gesture and learn that pointing is an intentional act. At this point, the baby can initiate new joint attention moments by vocalizing and gesturing toward objects. The baby might look at a toy, their parent, and then return to the toy; this suggests that the baby enjoys having the parent look at the same item. As the child develops, these same joint attention skills are used to focus together on a play activity or to request a particular toy or food from an adult while looking at the adult for assistance.
As Winnie the Pooh says, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you; you have to go to them sometimes.”
Some children, however, don’t develop joint attention the way we expect them to. They might not be making eye contact and don’t quickly attend to what you’re showing them. If this is the case with your child, please reach out to your pediatrician, your child’s daycare provider or teacher, or us. We can assist you with getting your child the assistance they may need.
Don’t wait too long as your intuition as the caregiver is usually right when it comes to your child’s development.
In Parent’s magazine, there’s an article about raising kids with the following quote: “A new mother’s top priority is often to make sure her baby is safe, and she will have a low threshold for sensing anything amiss” (Dr. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). It is also known that the earlier you reach out for assistance, the sooner your child can hopefully receive the right services to help develop joint attention.
Please keep in mind: “Making eye contact with your child is an important tool for connection and communication.” (Dr. Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Ann Duffy, The Power of Nonverbal Communication)
Mother and daughter photo created by Racool_studio - www.freepik.com