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Eye contact helps babies learn to talk

As you adjust to life with a newborn, eventually a new normal sets in. You post pictures on social media. You commiserate with other new parents about survival on minutes of sleep and strong coffee. You wonder why you can't remember the social life you had just a few weeks ago before this arrival. You also begin to gain confidence in deciphering hungry cries from tired cries. And soon you reach the parenting milestone of knowing what your baby needs before your mother-in-law does. Communication has begun.

Sure, those much-anticipated first words are still many months away. But communication begins long before those first words around the first birthday. The early nonverbal forms of communication—eye contact and joint attention—are vitally important for laying a solid foundation for language to develop. 

Eye contact is an early predictor of language skills.

First, an infant develops the ability to focus his eyes on a face. As early as four days old, a newborn recognizes his mother's face. The best way to support your baby's development of eye contact is by looking at him while you feed him, since a newborn can only see approximately eight to 15 inches away, about the distance to your face when holding the baby.

Whether breast- or bottle-fed, babies develop foundational social communication skills by looking at a caregiver's face during feedings. When your infant locks eyes with you, and shifts his gaze to notice what you are looking at, this shows joint attention (the social sharing of a moment between two people). 

The ability to pay attention to the same thing at the same time as an adult, coordinated joint attention, develops between eight and 15 months of age. The ability to direct your attention, by looking at a desired object then back to your face to indicate nonverbally, "Hey, Mom! Will you please hand me that rattle over there?" develops shortly after coordinated joint attention. Directing you nonverbally is also referred to as triadic gaze because the child connects three things by looking with his eyes—himself, something else and you. According to a study published in Infant Behavior and Development, "early joint attention skills are a predictor of a relatively larger early vocabulary." When your baby looks at you, then at an object he wants, then back to you, it shows that he understands he can influence your actions. Joint attention begins with baby as a passive participant, responding to the adult's communication. When the infant begins to use his eyes to show you what he wants, he has shifted from a passive participant to an initiator in the parent-child relationship.

Babies learn best from people

Personal interaction is more effective than video or audio recordings in giving very young children the opportunity to learn to use their eyes for nonverbal social communication. Babies rely on the responses and interactions from caregivers to shape their behaviors. Your baby coos. You reward him with a big smile, physical touch and talking to him. Soon he is making happy noises to gain your attention and so begins the joyous dance of bonding with your baby. Your response to his movements and sounds encourages more of the same. Taking the time to play and spend time with your baby is one of the best ways to help your baby learn.


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