You’re at the park with your toddler and an airplane flies overhead. He runs to you, tugs your sleeve, points up and says, “Pane!” He looks at you as you follow his finger. You look back at him with wide eyes and say, “I see it too! It’s an airplane! It’s flying in the sky. ”
Or you’re playing with your child, both of you continuously going back and forth between focusing on the activity and engaging with each other.
These are examples of joint attention (sometimes referred to as shared attention or joint engagement), an important development driver.
Let’s take a look at how experts define joint attention, why it’s important, and how you can encourage it with your little one.
What is Joint Attention?
Joint attention is when someone uses eye gaze, gestures, sounds or words to get another person’s attention, followed by both people focusing on the same thing while also engaging with each other. For little ones, both initiating joint attention and responding to others’ bids for it are central to development.
Joint attention begins to emerge around 9 months of age, although the foundation for it begins in early infancy when babies interact with parents and caregivers through eye contact, sounds and smiles.
Why is Joint Attention Important?
Joint attention supports development in several ways, including:
Social skills — The social skills involved in joint attention (initiating, responding to others’ initiating, sustaining back-and-forth interactions, etc.) are integral to communication, relationships, learning and collaborating.
Language skills — Research shows that joint attention is linked to language acquisition. During joint attention, children have ample opportunities to not only observe language, but also practice using it. There’s one caveat, though: If joint attention is interrupted, language learning may suffer. This study recruited moms to teach their toddlers new words in two different situations: In the first situation, the moms were fully focused on their children while teaching them new words. In the second, the moms answered a cell phone call in the middle of the teaching session. In the first situation, the toddlers learned the words. In the second, they didn’t. In both situations, they heard the new words the same number of times, suggesting that the joint attention was the main driver of the learning.
Attention skills — Joint attention helps little ones learn to sustain focus, as well as shift focus back and forth between two things. Research has found that infants’ attention span suffers when joint attention is disrupted by parents’ eyes wandering during playtime.
General learning — In this study researchers briefly presented toddlers with two toys, one with the support of joint attention and one without. Later they recorded brain waves to analyze the toddlers’ responses to seeing the toys again, and found that they were more familiar with the toys presented to them in the joint attention scenario. What’s more, when presented with the toys they’d seen without joint attention, the toddlers repeatedly looked at the examiner, suggesting that they were seeking adult collaboration to learn about the toy.
What this Means for You
As a parent or caregiver, joint attention (whether responding to your child’s initiating it or initiating it yourself) is a powerful teaching tool. Here are some tips for maximizing it:
Respond in meaningful ways to your little one’s cues to interact. It can be tempting to say “mm-hm” when your toddler tugs your sleeve during dinner prep to show you a toy, but stopping even for a few seconds to crouch down and engage is valuable.
Set aside distraction-free time for doing BabySparks activities or engaging in free-play with your child. For BabySparks activities, watch the instructional videos before you start playing (we’ve made them brief and easy-to-follow) and then declare playtime a no-screen-time zone.
Connect by getting on your child’s level and using eye-contact, words, and nonverbal language (including gestures like pointing).
Have fun! A little enthusiasm can go a long way in encouraging and sustaining joint attention.
One thing to remember is that little ones should start engaging in joint attention around age 9 months, and it should be well established by around 18 months. Lack of initiating or responding to bids for joint attention might be a developmental red flag. If you’re worried about this, check in with your pediatrician or a pediatric speech-language or occupational therapist for guidance.