At some point you will, no doubt, have found yourself flicking through an old photo album and come across photos of you as a baby, perhaps with your parent’s scribbled comment at the side providing context and your age: "my first birthday", "sticking my tongue out for the first time", "I took five steps towards granddad", "my first solid food" or "my first bath". Browsing through such photo albums is like consulting our "personal development record": well, every child has their own album to flick through, in the sense that the timeline of key developmental milestones varies from one individual to another, with each child developing in their own way and time. This is something which childcare professionals are certainly aware of, but which you too, as parents, should bear in mind in order to avoid excessive anxiety or fears linked to your child’s development. Having said that, we can now continue our journey exploring human communication, pausing to consider an aspect that often catches parents’ attention: children’s first gestures.
As we mentioned previously, behaviour is a form of communication too, so gestures made by children have an important communicative and relational function. Moreover, just like language, the development of gestures follows a typical timeline that reflects the child’s progressive mental and physical development.
Pre-intentional and intentional stages of gestural communication
Up to 6/8 months of age, children make gestures, bouncing about in their cot, waving their arms, reaching out with their hands, sometimes accompanying these gestures with vocal play: they want to communicate something to their parent or caregiver, but do so without any precise intention, and it is the parents who, knowing their child well, infer the meaning and are thus able to literally decipher whether the child wants to drink, be given an object, have their nappy changed
or something else. This is pre-intentional communication: an early stage of gestural development that can be clearly noted in the relationship between the child and the person caring for them.
Towards 9/12 months, children make a mental leap in terms of development and acquire the ability to communicate precisely what they want to do or what they need. This is because in the meantime they have acquired the ability to see themselves as distinct from other people; others are seen as independent agents with the ability to satisfy the child's needs, so the child is able to distinguish means from goals.
To give a very simple example, it is as if they child thinks to himself: "I have mum/dad here with me, my bottle of water is on the table next to them, now I can point and they will understand that I am thirsty, they will give me the bottle and I can drink". Obviously, the child does not consciously think this through, they simply make the gesture, but the meaning is exactly as described above. We can say that at this stage children use actions to communicate what they are still unable to express verbally, indeed it is around this time that children learn to attract the adult’s attention in order to have their needs satisfied (intentional stage of gestural communication).
During this intentional communication stage (9/12 months) children start to exhibit so-called deictic gestures namely pointing, showing, offering, giving and ritualised requests. As parents, you might have seen how your child behaves when they want to play with a much-loved toy which is within eyesight but out of reach; they will lift up a hand and point, directing their gaze in turn at you and at the desired toy: their aim is immediately clear to you, and so you will most probably underline their request, voicing their intention and saying "Do you want that toy?", at which point they will let you know that it is exactly what they want: for the child, it is mission accomplished! This seems like a very simple process, but for the child it is a really important communication and developmental milestone.
If, for example, you are enjoying a walk outdoors and you come across an animal (children are usually very attracted to them) you will notice that your child tries to catch your eye and your attention and then show you with great enthusiasm what they are looking at (a nearby dog wagging its tail, a swan in the pond), so they use specific behaviour in this instance to obtain shared attention, which is an essential building block of human relationships.
Often, as already mentioned above, to reiterate their intention and their goals, they accompany these gestures with vocal play of varying "intensity" or with first words: "Bebe! " as they point to a child they encounter while out and about, or "miaow! " as they hand you a soft toy cat. Of course, the ability to focus their attention on something, be it a toy, an object, a person or an animal depends on what the child can see in their environment; they are still unable to ask for something that is out of sight, as this is an ability they will acquire at a later stage with so-called referential gestures, which represent a further developmental milestone and indicate that the child is able to organise their requests for needs to be met in a more sophisticated way that is detached from the environment in which they find themselves at that point in time.