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We tend to spend a lot of time wondering what our babies are thinking before they start talking and can tell us exactly what they’re thinking. For example, have you ever wondered what your baby means when they point to something?

Let’s say your baby points to a banana on the counter. You wonder: What do they want? What are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to reach out and touch the banana? Do they want you to acknowledge, “Hey, look, there’s a banana on the counter”? Do they want you to tell them that the object is called a banana? Or are they asking you to pick up the banana and give it to them?

It could be any of those things. The simple gesture of pointing is actually a much more complex method of prelinguistic communication than you might realize. Just because your baby’s not talking — or not talking much — yet, it doesn’t mean there’s not a lot going on in their head!

Read on to learn where pointing falls on your baby’s timeline for development, as well as how to foster their communication skills.

Research from 2007 suggests that most babies typically begin pointing around their first birthday. They may also make some sounds when they’re pointing.

Before your baby starts pointing, they’ll do what experts call following a point. This means that when you point to something and call attention to it, your baby’s eyes will follow.

Experts believed that babies didn’t start following a point until around 9 to 12 months old, but a suggests that babies as young as 4 months old may be capable of it. (Of course, when you want to show it off to someone, your baby won’t do it.)

So, if your little one has been following your lead for a while, don’t be surprised if you see them thrust out a pudgy little finger in the direction of something interesting, then turn to you with a face full of expectation.

As your baby begins pointing, be sure to respond. One of the best ways that you can encourage your baby to point is to model this behavior yourself.

Point out objects to your baby and name them for your baby. If it’s safe, you might even hand them the object and let them check it out for themselves.

You can also ask them questions about the object they’re pointing to.

“Do you see the doggie?” you might ask. “What’s the doggie doing right now? Is he wagging his tail? Do you think he’s happy? Do you want to wave to the doggie and say hi?”

Speaking of waving, look for other gestures that your baby might be using to communicate with, including:

  • the hand clap
  • the head nod
  • the “shhh” gesture

These are all ways that your little one may communicate with you, even if they’re not speaking actual words yet. By responding, you’ll be encouraging your baby by showing them that you’re just as engaged in the “conversation” as they are.

Pointing can be cute, funny, and sometimes a bit mysterious. But pointing is also a development milestone for your baby as they continue to build their communication skills and engage with the world around them.

One interpretation is that babies are trying to influence the people around them by pointing. They’re engaging in a social behavior that involves another person.

When your baby points to an object and you notice and respond in some way, both of you are engaging in a cooperative act. In short, you and your baby are intentionally communicating with each other.

Pointing is one of several milestones that babies tend to reach around their first birthday.

By that time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your baby’s probably already using some other forms of nonverbal communication. They might be waving “bye-bye” and shaking their head “no.” (Get used to that one, by the way.)

Here are a few of the other milestones your pediatrician might ask about at your baby’s 1-year well-child visit:

  • crawling or scooting
  • pulling to stand or even standing alone without support
  • using a pincer grasp
  • putting objects into a container
  • taking those objects back out of the container
  • saying very simple words like “dada,” “mama,” or “oh-oh.”

So, we mentioned that 12 months is the general timeframe when it comes to pointing. But of course, YBMV: your baby may vary.

Your baby might start pointing a couple of months before their first birthday, or they might start a little later. That’s all absolutely OK, so no need to panic if the big first birthday party is just a memory and your baby’s not pointing yet. (You can exhale now.)

If your baby hasn’t started pointing by around 18 months of age, it may be worth discussing with your baby’s doctor. Be sure to watch for any other milestones that seem to be delayed, too.

While this could be a sign of a developmental delay, your baby may also just be on the outer bands of what’s considered “typical.” Either way, you can raise your concerns and get your doctor’s opinion on how to proceed.

Once your baby has started pointing, you can start looking forward to many more milestones. A few exciting features on the “coming soon” list include:

  • following simple commands (this will last until they’re teenagers)
  • bringing things to show you
  • pointing to body parts when asked to do so
  • enjoying pretend play
  • fetching objects from another room when you ask them to
  • learning new words

Plus, if your baby’s not yet walking, that’s another milestone to look forward to. Just make sure to double-check all your baby proofing efforts and move anything breakable far out of your baby’s reach.

Pointing is an important milestone that shows your baby is working on their communication skills. It may not seem like a very big thing, but it’s a sign that your baby wants to communicate with you.

Keep on reinforcing this new skill by responding with enthusiasm when they point to something.

Acknowledge what they’re doing, ask them questions, and watch how they listen to you and react. And don’t worry, the real back talk won’t start for a while.