A great time to begin focusing your attention to what those little eyes are landing on is when babies are just starting to focus on the world around them, cooing and observing all that’s new. Learning to watching their eyes from early infancy will help you get tuned into their perspective with more ease and develop a better understanding of each other. This will pay huge dividends as you journey in learning to communicate with each other.
One of my favorite activities with my boys as infants was going on walks outside with them held close to my chest. I could see their little eyes taking in the leaves shaking on trees or the raindrops landing on our umbrella. They would show increased interest in something using early babbling noises or kicking feet and smiling! I would observe with them and provide the label (eg, “Oooh, birdie. What a beautiful bird.”). With these interactions helping them know that I was tuned in to them, they would babble more frequently, seemingly wanting me to provide the label for each new interest.
This dynamic was a foundational part of our relationship. I was letting them know that I cared about what excited them. It was also incredibly rewarding for me because I could watch their comprehension grow (eg, seeing them look for a dog when I mentioned one passing by) and be more tuned in to their first words by letting their eye gaze help me understand what they were talking about if their articulation wasn’t clear (it won’t be, trust me.). I knew the moment they spoke their first words because I was tuned into what they were looking at and knew the single utterance “igh” was their attempt at “light.” (Yes, both of my boys said “light” as their first word!) Babies and young toddlers are very context dependent. They are not going to tell you about the airplane they saw last week. They will tell you about what they’re looking at or what they want and it’s almost always within sight (or it’s food!).
As early as three months (and try it earlier if you want!), babies can choose from a couple books. With the baby in your lap or laying on the floor, hold two books in front of the baby. Ask them simply, “Do you want The Big Red Barn or Gossie and Gertie?” Their eye gaze will go back and forth between each book, but stay engaged with one more than the other. You will respond accordingly, “Ok, let’s read that!” With practice it gets easier and easier to figure out what the baby wants. Eventually the baby will have the motor skills to grab whatever book they want.
Allowing babies to choose with their eyes is a great way to provide them ith some control over their environment. I haven’t met one who isn’t thrilled with the opportunity. Without being able to verbalize, they can now have some say over their books and toys. As they get the concept down, they can even pick which way to go on a walk if given the choice.
Learning about communicating with babies using eye gaze was probably the most formative bit of knowledge in my early parenting experience. I believe this came from reading some of Dr. Patricia Kuhl’s research, but I have also heard her lecture and read her book. Part of parenting two young boys with less than stellar sleep habits has included losing half of my memory. So, please forgive me if I don’t remember my sources correctly. I would rather spend time writing these posts than digging through journals and my Speech-Language Pathology grad school notes right now. That time may come so that I make sure not to forget any juicy grad school tidbits that helped my transition into motherhood! Nonetheless, I hope these prove to be as helpful to your communication experiences with babies and young children as they have been to mine.