New parents love the developmental milestones – the first smile, crab-like crawl, and “ma-ma-ma” are unforgettable. Around their first birthday, babies start pointing, a communicative gesture that is universally, and uniquely, understood by humans. More than ever before, parents have insight into precisely what their babies are interested in; Oh, you want the Snoopy doll next to the book? Sure, here you go. But, what if babies are communicating with us about objects even earlier?

According to new findings in the Journal of Psychological Science, babies younger than one year can also communicate through gestures. Researchers Ramenzoni and Liszkowski from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics designed a clever experiment to see if babies, before they could point, would seek-out help by putting them in that tricky situation we’ve all been in – having the object of our desire just out of reach.

Previous research suggests that babies as young as 6-months have a sense of how far they can reach to get objects, and don’t bother with toys that are too far away. Yet, at 8-months, they will still try for an unreachable toy when it is offered by a parent. Is this because 8-month-olds know their parent might be able to help them? Rather, is reaching at this age, like pointing later on, a social act? In the current study, a group of eight-month-old babies visited the Max Planck laboratory in the Netherlands to help answer this question. As they sat in highchairs, the researchers presented them with toys that they either could, could almost, or could definitely not reach on their own. The location of the toys and the babies’ reaching was precisely measured and recorded. On some trials the parents left the room and the babies were seemingly alone, as the experimenters were also out of view. On other trials, a parent sat next to their baby.

When the babies could or could almost reach the toys they did not reach differently depending on if their parent was in the room. Sometimes they successfully grabbed the toys and sometimes they didn’t, but their reaching behavior in these conditions was similar. However, when the toys were totally unreachable, babies reached for them far more often if a parent was present. According to the researchers, these findings lend support to the idea that the babies understood their parents could help them achieve their goal of grasping the toy. They reached more for the toy they couldn’t get with the expectation their parent could, and would, help them. Before mastering the physical ability to point out what they want, the babies used reaching as a way of communicating.

But, was it the case that these babies only expected their own parents to help them? The researchers brought in a new group of 8-month-olds and repeated the experiment, this time sometimes replacing the parent with a stranger. The results were similar when babies were with parents or strangers – they were more likely to reach for the far out of reach toy when someone was in the room with them than when they were alone. 

It is easy to think of babies, before they are talking and walking, as passive bundles of cuteness. But, studies like this show an incredible amount of social understanding and communication in even young babies. They are learning about the world and the people in it from the start, and every day developing their expectations about how others can respond and interact with them. Parents almost always want to be receptive to their children, which is easier when they start toddling around, explaining what they want. This study, though, is a reminder of the many ways that babies know to ask for help, even without words.