New study shows babies reach for toys when they know adults are around to help them

Eight-month old babies operate in "we mode", according to experts.
Eight-month old babies operate in "we mode", according to experts. Photo: Getty Images

Eight-month-old babies know when they need another's person help – and act accordingly, finds new research examining the way infants develop their early communication skills.

Two studies, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that babies were more likely to reach towards toys that were too far away from them, when another adult was around than when they were by themselves.

In order to understand more about how and when babies begin to communicate, Ramenzoni and co-author Ulf Liszkowski explored babies' developing motor skills for clues.

During the first study, 20 8-month-old infants were presented with a series of toys - some within reach, others only just reachable, and the remainder clearly out of the babies' reach. In the initial phase of the test, the baby's parent was in the room; in the second, the parent was absent.

Results demonstrated that the babies reached more for toys that were out of their grasp when their parents were in the room, than when they were alone. And, it wasn't just because the babies felt more secure reaching for toys when their parents were with them.

A second study highlighted that it didn't matter if the potential toy-retriever was the baby's parent. An additional group of 8-month-olds still reached for the distant toys more often when an experiment was with them, than when they were alone in the room.

According to the study authors, the babies were operating in what they called "we-mode", planning their actions in the context of a social unit.

"Babies are sensitive to the social context that surrounds them and plan their actions while taking this social context into account," says study co-author and psychological scientist Verónica Ramenzoni in a statement

She also noted that the findings lend some support "to parents' understanding that their infant's actions at this age are communicative," 

Ramenzoni was surprised at the differences observed in the babies across the social contexts – and what this tells us about the way infants learn to communicate.

"Many babies that sat there and did not even attempt to grasp 'unreachable' objects when they were alone tried really hard to get them when their parent was sitting by them," she said.

"The babies' behaviour is an indication that they perceive adults as expanding their ability to act in the world," Ramenzoni says.