Engaging in shared attention efforts is one of the easiest ways to bond with your child while supporting their development.

“Hey, Dad! Look over here! Look at this!” When your child points to an object –a flower, a television screen– they might be initiating a bid for what child psychologists call joint attention.

What is joint attention?

Joint attention is defined as a parent and child’s shared and coordinated focus on a third object, event, or stimuli. Coordination is the keyword here. Pointing to an object to acquire it (e.g., reaching for a cup) is different from pointing, gazing, nodding, or focusing on an object to alert a parent of its existence (e.g., pointing to a dog from afar). The importance of joint attention is that the kid and parent have the notion that they are both aware that the focus of attention is on the same thing.

This kind of attention happens when both child and adult are focused on something at the same time to admire, view, or name the object. Think of it as one of the first ways you and your child use to communicate. What you’re saying to each other is “Woah, look at this!”, “Watch how this works!”, “Look how soft this is!”, etc.

Children usually engage in joint attention attempts anywhere from three months to 12 months old. It typically looks like this: your child gazes at something, points to it, and then looks back at you. However, adults can also initiate this exchange. Parents and teachers engage in shared attention all the time while playing, feeding the babies, or when linking a new object to its name.

There are two “categories” of joint attention. First, the response to the offer, or spontaneous attention from others, is when kids follow the direction of the gaze and gestures of their parents or teachers, sharing a common point of reference. Second, when kids initiate it, involving their gestures and eye contact to direct the other’s attention to an item or something specific, expecting to seek interest or experiences with others. 

What are the main skills of joint attention?

As we have mentioned, this kind of shared attention is more than just looking at an object, it implicates different skills your little one is achieving, including:

  • Guiding and assisting another person.
  • Being able to change the gaze between people and objects.
  • Sharing emotional states with another person.
  • Following someone else’s gaze and point.
  • Being able to draw another person’s attention to objects or events to share experiences.

What is the importance of joint attention?

Establishing joint attention is important for children in their later development of social skills, communication, learning, cognitive skills, and language development. Without these skills, it might be difficult for kids to develop relationships –or interact– with their family and peers since it is associated with social interactions with people around them. Joint attention is one of the first achievements that, in later life, allows children to have social interactions and understand the other person’s point of view, as a part of the theory of mind.

Stages of joint attention

Developmental psychologists have divided joint attention into three distinct levels that become more complex as a child ages.

  1. Focused joint attention: During this stage, both adults and children look at the same object, but without meaningful interactions. It usually happens between 3 and 6 months of age.
  2. Dyadic joint attention: Soon after the “focus” stage, the parent and child start to use gestures, facial expressions, and words while focusing on the object at hand. This is crucial for the development of imitation, social-referencing, and first interaction milestones, among other building blocks for language and cognitive skills.
  3. Triadic joint attention: Once a child has acquired sufficient cognitive and language abilities, they will engage in the third and final stage of joint attention. During this stage, both parent and child look at or engage with a third object while knowing that they are both “in on the fun” at the same time.

You can encourage your child’s joint attention efforts by being actively interested in whatever they are focused on. Free playing, doing developmental activities, storytime, and even everyday tasks like cooking can be great moments to engage in meaningful interactions.

But don’t worry too much about the “how” of joint attention, it’s something that will happen naturally with time. The most important thing you can do is to keep fostering positive and loving interactions with your little one!

How does joint attention develop in babies? 

The development of joint attention, just as your baby’s growth, is divided into different stages too. The first step is the discovery of objects in their environment. In the first months of a babies’ life, the interactions with their caregivers are usually face to face –without the use of objects in the environment.

After some time, objects become part of this communication, leading the interaction into the “triadic” form. To achieve joint attention, babies need to be interested in objects first, so try to encourage them by showing different items in your house.

Also, one of the first attention skills babies develop is the visual modality –which includes following a person’s gaze, turning their head, and pointing. This visual modality goes through different steps.

At two or three months, babies start to follow adult’s attention or cues in a general form, moving their head to see what happens around them. Then, between six and eight months, babies can locate precisely an object or event in the environment. After that, around 12 months, they are more capable of pointing and understanding the meaning of that action. Finally, between 12 and 15 months old, most babies can locate the target of someone else’s pointing gesture.

How can I encourage interactions with my child? 

  • Practice joint attention as a part of your routine, encouraging your little one to change their attention from what they are doing to what you are showing them.
  • Playing with bubbles is an excellent activity to practice joint attention and communication skills with your child. 
  • Point and use gestures with them. For example, while reading, you can point to the drawings in the book. 
  • When your baby is a few months old, try to use items that they like to foster their interest in objects. 
  • Choose activities that include taking turns, so your child has to shift their attention.
  • Complete an activity together, like a craft project, and try to develop eye contact with your child while you’re doing the activity.
  • Give your little one commands that are easy to follow. When you ask them to do something or shift their attention, try not to use too many words so they can focus more and understand what you’re saying.

What happens if I don’t see my child sharing attention? 

Remember each child develops at their own rhythm; some children might take more time to develop this skill. As we said, it is something that will happen naturally. However, since shared attention is important for social, cognitive, and language development, sometimes the persistent lack of joint attention in kids might be an early sign of autism or a related spectrum disorder –with more other signs of course–, so try to be aware of your little one’s attention skills.

Remember you can try the activities we enlisted above if you want to encourage or check your baby’s joint attention, but it is not a rule that you must do them. If you are concerned about the absence of this shared attention or you have any doubts about the subject, you can always consult your pediatrician for guidance.

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María Mirón is a psychology researcher with a Masters in Clinical Psychology. With over eight years of research experience, she has published and presented extensively on Early Childhood Development forums across the globe and is currently a professor of research methods at the University of Monterrey. She is on a mission to bridge the gap between the science of ECD and practical tools for parents.