Hello and welcome to our 20th live chat! This time we spoke to Laura Boundy, a PhD student at the University of Manchester whose work focuses on babies’ early gestures, particularly showing and giving gestures during social play and how these may link to later social and language skills.
Q: What kind of experiments do you do?
Laura : The experiments can vary from just observing babies and parents during play, to actually manipulating certain elements. At the moment I’m looking at the motives behind babies gestures so I am conducting an experiment where adults’ responses to babies gestures are changed to see how the babies react to this. It has had some interesting results!
Q: What have you found so far in the experiment you mentioned where adults change their responses?
Laura: I’m still working on the experiment, but so far we’ve found that when adults provide an ‘incorrect response’ (so for example they ignore the child, or speak to the child but ignore the toy they are showing, or look at a different toy) the child shows signs of dissatisfaction, such as vocalising more, repeating their gesture and even throwing toys. This suggests that by 10 months, babies are able to form intentions when showing toys to adults.
@Laura I can imagine the kids get frustrated!
Laura: Haha, they really do! What is interesting though is that even if you provide the babies with attention, if it is not the right kind (for example, just giving them attention and ignoring the toy they are playing with) they also get frustrated. This seems to show that at this age, babies are not just attention-seeking, but want to engage in joint attention with a toy. This is an essential skill for later language development.
Q: Does baby sign feature in your research at all?
Laura : No, I don’t look at baby sign, although I know that this is fairly popular in research at the moment. [She later recommended this article for those who are interested in baby sign: link]
Q: What age are the babies you’re working with?
Laura: I’m working with babies 10-12 months, so just before they begin to speak.
Q: Could you explain what you mean by ‘gestures’ please?
Laura: Of course, by gestures I mean behaviours that babies use to try to communicate with others before they begin to speak, such as through showing toys, reaching, pointing etc.
Q: What age do they start using gestures? And how do you know they are ‘gesturing’ (which I guess means trying to communicate something) vs just moving?
Laura : It’s difficult to put an age on the onset of gestures, as every baby is different. Normally they will begin to gesture around 8-9 months, although not consistently until 10-12 months. You can usually tell if a baby is gesturing with intent rather than just moving as often they will use other behaviours, such as vocalising, and will look to the parent/adult to check where they are attending.
Q: My baby is 4 months old. He makes a punching sort of movement with his fist from his face outwards. He seems to like it and repeat it when we copy him. He’s been doing this since about 6 weeks. Is it just reflex, or play, or communication? It’s very cute!
Laura : Aww, he sounds lovely! At this age this type of behaviour is likely to be a learned response, that is, he notices that by moving his arm he engages you and gets your attention. Babies are social from birth and these sort of behaviours are vital in their development and learning, this will then lead on to the gestures I am looking at.
Q: Are there any definite ‘gesturing milestones’ that practitioners look out for?
Laura: Good question! Within research, a gesturing/communicative milestone often looked at is pointing ability at 12 months. A lack of pointing and showing in babies around this age has been linked to social disorders such as autism, so it is important to understand exactly what makes these gestures special.
Q: When you say ‘pointing’ do you define that as with index finger extended or can it include whole hand gesturing?
Laura: It’s interesting that you bring up the difference in index finger and whole hand pointing, as this is something that is often looked at in research. Generally, whole hand pointing develops earlier and is normally viewed as reaching and having a more ‘selfish’ motive (i.e. I want that and if I reach my mum will get it for me). Index finger pointing develops later and is linked to more social motives, for example pointing at a bird in the sky to share their interest.
Q: Is the 12 month pointing ability the only gesturing milestone you look at? Does head turning count?
Laura: Head turning is a much earlier milestone, which is often linked to the importance of eye-gaze from birth. I don’t look at this in as much detail though in my research.
Q: Do babies who show early gesturing also go on to develop language skills quite early too?
Laura: It doesn’t seem to matter too much when infants begin to gesture. There is a link between frequency of pointing and early onset of words, however later language does not seem to be influenced. What is a problem is when babies don’t use these gestures at all.
Q: Have you done or know of any work around signalling for toileting needs and elimination communication?
Laura: Sorry, toileting needs/elimination communication is not something I’ve looked at, I could definitely see if I could find some research papers on it though if you’re is interested.
Q: Have you researched communication of pain in babies through gestures? Apparently it is believed they draw their knees up but if you have found or read of other additional stuff, that would potentially be a huge difference for children’s nurses & Dr.s
Laura: Sorry, that isn’t something I’ve looked at and I don’t really know of any research which focuses on pain in babies and gestures, but that would definitely be an interesting area to look at!
Q: I also wondered if hands are crucial. What happens if a baby doesn’t have/can’t use her hands? Does she find an alternative? Do blind babies gesture in the same way?
Laura: Again this is a very interesting point and something I would like to know more about. It’s not an area I have looked at but I imagine babies with the inability to use their hands would find other ways, particularly through vocalising and eye gaze, in order to communicate their intentions. I’m sure there is research on blind babies and their gesture behaviours but it is not something I’m familiar with.
Q: Interesting! I was going to ask about cultural differences such as in Japan where bowing is important or in my culture where index pointing is deemed rude.
Laura: My research is looking at babies that come from English speaking families only, however you are right, cultural differences play a huge role in the development of gestures and also the development of language. This isn’t really my area of expertise but again if you are interested I could find some papers which look at this.
A big thank you to Laura for taking the time to come to one of our chats!