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

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Interacting (7 – 9 Months) – Communicating with Intentionclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

In the period from seven to nine months of age, babies begin to take a more active role in communication. They start to communicate purposefully, resulting in clearer and more effective interactions with caregivers. Seven- to nine-month-old babies are motivated to communicate when their messages are successfully understood by their caregivers.

Infants’ Interests and Abilities That Support Interaction

Between seven and nine months, babies start to respond differently to the people and objects in their environment. With the continued development of joint attention and intentionality, interactions with caregivers become increasingly complex and start to involve both objects and gestures.

Interest in People

By seven months of age, babies often begin to respond differently to their primary caregiver. They may stay close to their caregivers, following their movements and becoming upset if their caregivers leave. They are also alert to their caregivers’ attention. While playing, if babies notice that their caregivers are no longer watching them, half the time they stop playing and try to get their caregivers’ attention. Max’s mom has noticed that Max will happily sit in his highchair and play with his toys as long as she turns away from the stove and sink frequently to watch him. If Max’s mom turns her back for too long, Max will start to cry and fuss.

By eight months of age, babies will usually start to show interest in other babies. By nine months of age, they begin exploring these little friends. Avery’s mom and her friend Laura have waited a long time for their babies to show an interest in each other. They have been meeting for walks and swims since the girls were two months old. Finally, at eight months of age, the girls have started to smile at each other and reach their arms out to each other.

Interest in Toys, Objects and Playing

Between seven and nine months of age, babies develop increasingly complex patterns of playing with objects. Seven-month-old babies will sort objects by size. Eight-month-old babies are interested in holding and moving objects and show a preference for new and more complex toys than in the previous seven months. When they explore objects, babies this age pay more attention to the shape, weight, texture, function and properties of objects than in the first six months. Nine-month-old babies will put objects in containers and if they watch them being hidden, will uncover objects. Max enjoys playing with a set of containers and his blocks. He puts the blocks into the containers and dumps them out again. If his poppy hides a block under a container, Max will turn the container over to get the block.

Seven-month-old babies remember that Jack will pop up when playing with a Jack-in-the-box and will laugh at funny expressions. Most frequently, they will imitate physical acts if they are able. Max likes to throw his arms up in the air like his mommy does when jack pops out of the box. Avery likes to clap like Daddy does when they are listening to music together.

By nine months, babies are active and interested game players. These babies anticipate the outcomes of events in games such as peek-a-boo and patty-cake and will imitate play.

Use of Gestures

Beginning at seven months, gestures play an increasingly important role in interactions between babies and their caregivers. At first, babies use gestures to show awareness of self through playing coy, hiding their faces and playing peek-a-boo. Seven-month-olds also gesture using objects. They may show them to their communication partners but not release them. In this way, they gain and keep the attention of their communication partners. Sitting in her high chair waiting for her supper, Avery will pick up a toy from the tray and wave it around while babbling and looking at her mother as if to say, “Look what I’ve got”. Raising their arms to be picked up is another way in which seven-month-old babies may gesture.

Around eight months, reaching becomes another way babies use gestures to direct interactions. Babies may reach for objects themselves or may shift their eye gaze between the object and caregiver to encourage their caregivers to reach the object for them. Avery’s dad is finding it more difficult to get Avery dressed after her bath, especially once she sees her duckie. She starts by looking from her duckie to her dad but if he doesn’t immediately pass it to her she’s soon rolling away from the towel and reaching out with her arms to grab her duckie, the baby wash, or whatever else is in sight. Gradually reaching becomes pointing as babies indicate their interest in toys beyond their reach.

While playing with toys, babies may use gestures that demonstrate their understanding of how objects are used. For example, Max brings his play telephone up to his ear. The use of these gestures suggests that infants recognize that objects have specific features and functions. These gestures may be an early form of categorization. As they develop categories of objects, infants may apply these gestures to similar-looking objects. Max’s parents saw an example of this when he held a stuffed banana up to his ear. They noticed that the toy was a similar shape to the receiver of his toy phone.

Seven- to nine-month-old babies’ improved ability to gesture and their expanding vocal skill support the development of turn-taking. Avery is now more able to take her turn in exchanges with her parents, vocalizing and gesturing in response to her mom’s comments. For more information on the development of turn-taking, see Vocalizing 7 - 9 Months.

Intentional Communication

Researchers describe intentional communication as occurring when babies act with the specific purpose of getting their caregivers’ attention or help. Although babies’ cries in the first six months do have the effect of getting caregivers’ attention, researchers do not describe this as true intentional communication. However, learning the link between crying and getting fed is essential to the development of intentional communication. True intentional communication is believed to emerge at around eight months.

Researchers would say your baby was intentionally communicating if the following four things were observed:

  1. Your baby makes eye contact with a communication partner while gesturing or vocalizing, often switching his or her gaze back and forth between an object and the partner.
  2. Your baby’s gestures and vocalizations have become consistent. For example, a baby used a gesture of opening and closing her hand when she wanted something, rather than attempting to reach the object herself. The vocalization she used, ‘eh, eh’ was one that she consistently used in situations in which she wanted something. Another baby would probably use a different sound in the same situation, because this sound was not copied from adult speech but rather was a communicative signal invented by this baby.
  3. After a gesture or vocalization, your baby pauses to wait for a response from his or her communication partner.
  4. Your baby persists in attempting to communicate if he or she is not understood and sometimes even changes behavior to communicate more clearly.

These characteristics are evident in the following example. When Max wants to be picked up by his mom instead of being held by someone else, he makes eye contact with his mom while looking back and forth between her and the other person with a worried look (characteristic 1). Max always says “eee-eee” and stretches his arms out to her when he wants his mom to pick him up (2). Max looks again at his mom after these actions (3). Max’s mom is talking with his dad and does not notice Max’s signals. As a result, Max’s “eee-eee” becomes louder and more high pitched and he arcs his whole body towards his mom (4).

Once babies are able to intentionally communicate, they become more active participants in interactions. They may adjust their behaviors to achieve their goals and use body movements and eye gaze to direct caregivers’ actions. For example, Avery has started to look back and forth between her dad and the toys she cannot reach to indicate that she wants them. If that does not work right away, she begins to make loud protesting sounds as well.

Caregivers’ Support for Interactions

Play continues to provide opportunities for caregivers and babies to communicate and important chances for babies to learn language. The conversation patterns of babies and caregivers change as they become more focused on things around them.

Supporting Play with Toys and Objects

Toys and objects continue to be important in caregiver-baby interactions. Because seven- to nine-month-old babies are more interested in toys and have better developed listening skills, caregivers more frequently refer to objects, events and people in their interactions with these babies. To give their babies the topic for an interaction, caregivers will first name an object. As nine-month-old babies are able to follow the direction of caregiver pointing and line of sight, caregivers are able to talk with these babies about objects that are not right in front of them. For example, Max’s mom is able to point to and talk about a bird in a tree when walking outside with Max. To ensure that their babies are interested, caregivers monitor where the babies are looking. Max’s mom can see when he has followed her point and found the bird with his eyes. In these interactions, caregivers spend more time watching their babies than their babies spend watching them. The babies are often focused on the toys and objects that are being talked about! Caregivers also monitor their babies’ vocalizations, recognizing where they are interested or frustrated by the sounds they make. Max’s mom knew it was time to move on down the sidewalk when Max looked away from the bird and made fussy sounds.

Changing Nature of Interactions

Interactions between caregivers and babies become more and more like mature conversations as turn-taking improves. When Avery’s dad pauses when talking to give Avery a chance to take a turn, she is able to join in with a gesture or vocalization. Sometimes these back-and-forth exchanges go on for several turns. Caregiver speech has more content than in the first six months, with the focus changing from emotions to their babies’ behaviors and the world around them. For example, Avery’s parents now talk more about what she is playing with than what she is feeling.

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Interacting 7 - 9 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