Babies use their hands in many ways in the first several months, but once they learn to wave, clap, and point, they open the door to communication! This is an exciting (and critically important) milestone.
How Their Skills Develop
Let’s take a closer look at how and when these skills develop. When babies are born, they have very little agency over their bodies. The majority of their movements are reflexes that they have no control over.1 As these reflexes integrate or go away, they make way for more purposeful activities. As babies use their bodies more intentionally, such as reaching for a toy, putting things in their mouth, and pushing up on their hands to get a better view, it is time to encourage waving, clapping, and pointing.
A baby’s body develops from their head down to their toes and their trunk to their fingertips.1 They have control over their neck muscles and can hold their head up and then roll and crawl first, eventually becoming able to use their hands in a coordinated way and use their feet to walk. Following this progression, babies usually begin to control their hands for large movements between seven to eighteen months.
When Do Babies Point?
Typically, the first of these skills to develop is pointing, which occurs around seven months.1 At seven months, babies know what they want and use their hands to gesture. They may not have the isolated finger movement to point with their index finger yet, but they are likely using their whole hand to point to their bottle, toy, or mommy when that is what they want.
How You Can Encourage Your Baby
It is essential to pay close attention to your baby’s first attempt to communicate with gestures and make their wants known. When a baby points (even with their whole hand) toward their bottle or a specific toy, and the trusted adult then responds by verbally telling them they understand and giving them what they’re asking for, it begins to build the baby’s self-esteem and sense of trust.2 Then babies learn that they have some control over their world and that a trusted adult will meet their needs.
Before babies can gesture with their hands, it is still important to remain attuned to the baby’s wants and needs by watching their eye gaze. Babies will let us know what they want or are interested in by what they look at. Usually, the longer babies gaze at something, the more interested they are.2 If you see your baby staring at a toy, pick it up and hand it to your baby. They are already subtly communicating before they can even talk or gesture!
At closer to twelve months, babies can usually isolate one finger for pointing, becoming even more efficient at making their desires known.3 You can help to teach your baby to point by responding quickly to their gazes and hand gestures and pointing to things yourself. Initially, babies will look at your hand, but if you touch the item you are pointing to, then back your hand away, you can teach your child that you are calling their attention to something with your outstretched finger.
When Do Babies Clap?
The next skill that emerges is the ability to bring both hands together to clap. This usually occurs around eight or nine months.2 You may see your baby clap two items together if your baby has a toy in each hand. This may be intentional, or this may be excitement overflowing into movement.
The right side of our brain controls the left side of our body, and the left side of our brain controls the right side of our body. The corpus callosum connects the two sides of our brain.2 The messages must travel across the corpus callosum to coordinate movements on both sides of the body. This develops simultaneously with crawling because the act of crawling practices using the two sides of the body simultaneously and in a coordinated manner.
Babies will clap while playing, but you can teach your child to clap when they are happy or excited if you model this first. You can also hold your baby’s hands (or feet) in your hands and clap them together so your baby begins to process what this feels like.
When Do Babies Wave?
Linking clapping to an emotion helps babies learn how to show their feelings. Waving bye-bye is typically the last of these skills to emerge.2 Believe it or not, this is a higher-level skill because it is tied into a concept. Waving is communication, and it has meaning.
A baby might start to wave bye-bye when told to do so but not understand why they are doing it. They know that it generates a positive reaction from people, so they do it on cue. Waving bye-bye when someone is leaving indicates that a baby understands the concept of someone going away, and the act of waving is a type of greeting. This is definitely more advanced but also still adorable! This can also be taught through modeling. Making eye contact while waving and engaging in this communication is an essential social skill your baby will build on for years to come.