Pointing may not be polite, but it is useful, especially for babies who know what they want, but haven’t quite figured out the language to say so. Before Baby is ready to start spending paragraphs explaining themselves, she will start by pointing to the things she wants and needs. And before too long, Baby will start pointing out the things she wants you to see, or the thing she wants you to tell her about, especially if you’re in the habit of explaining the world around her.
Pointing can start any time from when Baby is 9 to 18 months old, though it’s generally around a year old. It often happens at the point in development when Baby knows a few words, but isn’t quite ready to start using sentences to create a compound meaning yet. Babies whose parents or caregivers frequently point at and name things in their world are more likely to start pointing sooner, as they’ve got a strong model for it.
There are two types of pointing that will be involved in Baby’s cognitive development: pointing out needs, and pointing out things she wants you to see. The first type of pointing is important, since it marks the point when she has figured out the mechanics of expressing her needs and desires in a better way than the crying she has used up until then. The second type though is even more of a giant leap forward, as it does something for Baby’s communication that she wasn’t even trying to do up until then.
The second type of pointing isn’t just showing an interest in the world around her, which she has been doing since birth – it’s actively sharing that interest with you. This sharing of her interests is called “joint attention,” and is as important for Baby’s future ability to communicate with you and the other people in her life as the babbling she has been doing, and the new sounds she has been teaching themselves. “Joint attention” is proof that Baby is starting to understand themselves and you as individuals, and shows that she wants to share her view of the world with you.
Baby’s communication through pointing happens for the same reason that baby sign language, even for hearing children, has gained so much traction with parents of pre-verbal babies. Babies point, and learn to sign, because their brains and their bodies are both growing at an astonishing rate, and every once in a while, they’ll reach a point in their development when the two won’t match up. Pointing and sign language can be important steps in Baby’s language development, and body language is something that’s going to be important in her communication as she grows up, but gestures are especially important right now because Baby is at a point where her cognitive development is a little bit ahead of her language development, and she has more things to say than she has ways to say them.