Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Interacting (4 – 6 Months) – New Contexts for Interactionclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

The little baby who came into the world seemingly “prewired” to communicate with others continues to develop skills and preferences that support interaction in what some have called the “golden age” of babyhood – the period from four to six months when babies become increasing able to interact with others. Caregivers continue to promote interaction by treating their babies’ behaviors as communicative, supporting their listening and vocal development. Babies, in turn, exhibit increasing interest in the world around them and display a broader range of responses to stimuli.

Babies’ Interests and Abilities that Support Interaction

Between four and six months of age, babies develop many new interests and abilities. Their eye gaze improves and they become more interested in the world around them. They develop joint attention skills. These new interests and abilities provide the foundation for interactions with parents and caregivers.

Eye Gaze

Babies are able to gaze into someone’s eyes soon after birth and over the first six months their skills at looking continue to develop. Four- to six-month-old babies continue to look at their communication partners and show more interest in looking at objects than in the first three months after birth. This is also when gaze coupling begins. Gaze coupling is similar to the turn-taking gaze patterns of adult conversation. In adult conversation, communication partners take breaks when looking at each other. While his dad changes Max’s diaper, Max makes and breaks eye contacts many times as he listens to dad talk to him and as he, in turn, vocalizes back to his dad. Improvements in Max’s eye gaze skills may be important to the continued and increasing attachment between Max and his dad.

Interest in People

In the four- to six-month period, babies continue to develop their “people skills” much to the joy of those around them. Babies who are four months old continue to pay more attention to faces, gazing longer at happy versus angry faces. Four-month-old babies will also look in the direction of someone leaving a room. They will smile at other babies and at a person who is talking to them. This increased attention to their surroundings is a result of increases in their visual memory. The attentiveness promotes positive interaction but can sometimes be challenging. Avery’s mother has found that now that Avery is more interested in what around her feedings are more challenging. Feedings take longer as Avery frequently pulls away to look at people walking by, trees outside the window, or even her mommy’s face.

At five months of age, babies begin to know the difference between people they know and people they don’t. This skill may result in a new reaction towards the end of the four- to six-month period when they begin to “make strange” – crying and drawing back from unfamiliar faces. Five-month-old babies may give extra-special attention to specific people – especially their happy parents! Six-month-old babies are more and more social and will even begin to explore the face of the person holding them. Max’s poppy says he feels like he is being explored by a tiny blind person when he holds Max – his little hands pat and prod every inch of his grandfather’s face.

Interest in Toys and Objects

From four to six months, babies are very interested in toys and objects. Improved eye-hand coordination and ability to scan their environment supports this change. Caregivers can encourage and respond to this interest in objects by helping babies explore objects and what they can do with them. At first, babies are able to focus on objects directly in front of their faces. Gradually, they begin to follow objects moved by caregivers. Five-month-old babies may be angry when objects “disappear” or are moved. At five months, Avery enjoys mouthing objects and turning them over in her hands to explore them but she still needs some help when she “loses” the object. Angry sounds are frequently heard when a rattle or toy she has been playing with has slipped too far out of her reach. By the end of the four- to six-month period, babies will explore objects without assistance from their caregivers.

Imitation

Beginning at five months, babies will deliberately imitate movements and vocalizations. Facial expressions are most frequently imitated. At four months, infants are able to imitate their caregivers’ tone. When Max is in a room full of busy, excited family members, his vocalizations have a similar energy but when he is cooing to his mom as they lay down for a nap, his voice takes on the more gentle tone of her lullaby. By five months, infants are able to imitate some vowel sounds (e.g., “aw” as “hot”), as well as sounds of different pitch. Max’s coos sound lower in pitch when he is matching his voice to his dad’s instead of his mom’s higher pitched voice.

Imitation may be an important way for babies to start interactions with their caregivers. For example, when Avery was two months old, her mom would cough in imitation of Avery’s cough. By the time Avery was four months old, she sometimes coughed to get her Mom’s attention, initiating an interaction.

Turn-Taking

In the first three months when caregivers talk to their babies, the babies make sounds at the same time as their caregivers. Beginning at about four months, babies start to take turns making sounds with their caregivers. They will also stop making sounds to listen to their caregivers’ voices. When Max and his dad are playing together, Max will make a sound after his dad does and then seems to wait for his dad to speak again. Four- to six-month-old babies also make more gestures, smiles, and head movements when interacting. The back and forth exchanges between caregivers and infants at this stage seem almost like adult conversations.

Joint Attention

In the first six months, babies are developing the ability to focus with someone else on the same object, person, or event. This is known as joint attention. Joint attention develops through routines and play in which caregivers repeatedly pair action and activity to direct their babies’ attention. Objects can be an important tool for focusing attention. For example, Max’s mom points to a picture of a puppy in a soft cloth book to focus Max’s attention as she talks about the puppy. Max’s mom also wiggles the puppy’s ears as she chats. Max and his mother have looked at this book in the same way many times. This helps Max to develop understanding of what happens when they look at this book. And more generally, Max develops a shared plan for other interactions. Joint attention seems to develop best when learning is shared, like with book reading. In fact, it has been suggested that flash card and other “drill” learning activities may not help develop joint attention.

To develop joint attention, maintaining eye contact is necessary. By four to six months, babies can follow the direction of their caregivers’ eyes when looking from them to an object. Max’s mother will look from Max to a book as she picks it up. Max follows her gaze with his eyes. Caregivers may also say “look” to help direct this “following” response. By six months, caregivers’ words and/or playful voice patterns may also establish joint attention with their babies.

Caregivers’ Support for Interaction

Four- to six-month-old babies use their new interests and abilities to interact with others within three contexts – play, object exploration, and rituals/games. Caregivers who provide and capitalize on these contexts encourage their babies’ development of interacting, listening and vocalizing skills.

Supporting Babies’ Play

Early play is primarily social. When played with, four-month-old babies may laugh, while five-month-old babies may frolic. At five months, play is a full body experience for Max. He kicks his legs, waves his arms, rolls from side to side, and even occasionally flips over! Six-month-old babies begin to exhibit a preference for people games and enjoy peek-a-boo.

Adults who want to play typically greet the baby first. Babies will signal their willingness to play by gazing at the adult. The motivated adult will then typically respond by getting face-to-face with the baby. It is equally important to recognize the potential for false starts – babies are not always prepared to begin play and may signal this by looking away. When her mom’s friend Linda walks up and says hi to her, Avery usually looks at her and smiles. Linda then comes around and looks right down into Avery’s stroller. Sometimes when she is tired or has had too much activity, Avery will look away. While she can’t yet move away, Avery is definitely able to signal her wish to be left alone.

Play follows a repeated pattern of engagement and time-outs. Pauses are important to give babies a chance to take a turn, as well as to provide a break. During pauses, four- to six-month-old babies may use facial expression, body movement or vocalizations to respond or may attend quietly. Caregivers can stimulate language and social development by treating these behaviors as communication turns. Time-outs are also important parts of play. Time-outs are rest breaks and allow time to change the focus of the interaction. Babies will signal their need for time-outs by fussing or looking away.

The following exchange between Avery and her mother provides an example of the early conversations or “protoconversations” that develop from the play pattern of engagement and time-outs. Avery definitely takes a turn doesn’t she?
Mom: (sitting down on floor beside Avery) Well hello Avery! I’ve got your kitty cat (holds up stuffed toy)
Avery: (looks at Mom and smiles and follows her gaze to the kitty cat toy)
Mom: Oh you are happy to see us! (smiles and shakes kitty cat toy in front of Avery’s face)
Avery: (smiles, laughs, and kicks legs)
Mom: You are ready to play!
Avery: (reachs for toy) Aaaaaaah!
Mom: You want the cat?
Avery: (reaching for toy) Aaaaaaaaah!
Mom: (putting the toy in Avery’s hands) Here’s the cat Baby A.
Avery: (chews on toy then tosses it aside and looks away)
Mom: All done?
(Pause or time out)
Mom: Avery?
Avery: (looks at mom)
Mom: How about your chicken? Do you want your chicken? (smiling and holding up a new toy)

This type of face-to-face play is most frequent between three and six months of age. Imitation by both babies and caregivers is common.

Helping Babies Explore Objects

Caregivers encourage their four- to six-month-old babies’ play with objects by joining in with their exploration of objects and how they can be used. As a result of this increasing exploration, caregiver-baby interactions more frequently include an object. Max and his dad have a favorite routine where his dad builds a tower with blocks, pausing to show each block to Max and give him a chance to feel it. Researchers have found that caregivers increase the length and complexity of what they say to their babies when talking about objects.

Engaging in Rituals and Games

Rituals are predictable interactions that occur during routines such as reading books and bath time. They provide valuable language learning opportunities. When caregivers use similar language and actions each time they complete routines or play games, their infants begin to identify the relationship between the words and the actions. In fact, the babies may become upset by changes in the predictable response patterns. Max’s dad experienced this first hand when he had to interrupt Max’s bath time ritual by abruptly putting him in his crib when the phone rang. Max had clearly developed an expectation that when he heard the sound of the running water and saw his yellow ducky a fun bath was coming - when he got the crib instead of the tub, he let out quite a wail!

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Interacting 4 - 6 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development