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How to Help Babies and Toddlers Understand and Use Gestures

Whoever said pointing is rude probably didn’t realize how important gestures are to your child’s language development. Before children reach their first birthdays, they use gestures rather than words to ask for things, share special experiences, and learn about the world around them. 

Gestures, like words, follow a developmental sequence. Understanding these gestures isn’t just about decoding baby babble. It’s about boosting their communication skills. So forget “no pointing!” Join in with your own playful gestures – every clap, wave, and mimicked move builds a bridge to clearer communication, one step at a time.

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Early communication milestones

Between nine and 12 months, children typically learn to reach, wave “hello” and “goodbye,” and point with an open hand. They may also be able to nod their heads to indicate “no,” tap objects to call attention to them, and “show” objects by handing them to others.

By 14 months, most children are able to point using their index fingers. At 16 months, children can clap, slap “high five,” give the thumbs-up sign, and indicate “I don’t know.” 

So, what’s the point of pointing? Isn’t it better to teach your child words rather than gestures? As it turns out, gestures play a crucial role in the development of spoken and signed language

Research on using gestures for communication

Here are some interesting takeaways from the research:

  1. Gestures allow you and your child to bond socially and emotionally. This sets the stage for learning words, play skills, and how to read.
  2. Children express ideas using gestures before they express those same ideas with words. The use of gestures can often predict language milestones.
  3. Using gestures can be a diagnostic tool to anticipate potential spoken language delays. So, if children are not using gestures, there’s a good chance they will have difficulty expressing themselves later on.
  4. For nonverbal children, gestures serve as a bridge to spoken language by prompting and encouraging the comprehension and use of words. For example, many toddlers repeatedly point to pictures of objects they love in order to hear their parents say the object’s name.

As your child’s most powerful role model, you can easily teach and encourage the use of gestures. But how do you do it?

Five gestural communication tips

Even before babies speak their first words, they’re communicating with us through gestures. From reaching for a desired toy to waving goodbye, these tiny movements offer a fascinating glimpse into their developing minds.

But how can we, as parents, support and encourage this natural form of communication? Here are five gestural communication tips to help your little one blossom.


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1. Follow that finger

If your child doesn’t yet look at you or pay attention to you when you speak to them, add a pointing finger to your words. Choose toys or activities your child finds interesting and point to them. 

Pick up your child, and start by slowly moving your pointing finger from your child’s field of vision to the object. If your little one doesn’t follow your pointing finger right away, you can turn and walk toward the toy or object while continuing to point.

Add words to your actions: “Look! Your big truck! There it is!  Let’s get it! Do you want to play?”

2. Helping hands

Use as many gestures as you can while speaking to your child. Hold out objects of interest and share them with your child: “Look! Here’s your cup.”

Point to objects you’re talking about or toward routine activities in which they’re about to engage. For example, if it’s snack time, point to the booster seat and say: “Snack time! Let’s sit down and eat!” 

When your child is wriggling around in the water at the end of bath time, hold up your arms and say: “Out? Do you want me to take you out?”

 When Grandma comes to visit, wave and blow a kiss. If your child doesn’t yet mimic your actions, take their hand or arms to help form the gestures.

Hold out your hand and ask your child to hand you something: “Want milk? Please give me your cup.” When talking about a big fish, hold your hands far apart to illustrate the concept of size. 

Little girl listening to her mom talking to her.
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/help-babies-use-gestures/

3. I’m so excited

An animated tone of voice can really grab and hold your toddler’s attention. Imagine a flat, monotone voice saying, “Time for lunch.” Now imagine the same phrase said with excitement. “Woohoo! It’s yummy food time!”

The second option, infused with enthusiasm and playful inflection, instantly awakens your toddler’s interest. It’s like an invitation, encouraging them to drop whatever they’re doing and join the fun.

4. Copycats

It’s been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, even for little ones learning to communicate. When your child makes any attempt at gesturing, immediately copy them and add in some words: “Bubbles. You want bubbles. Let’s play bubbles!”

When you imitate your child’s gesture, you’re showing them you’re listening and want to interact. Rhymes and songs that include hand movements are a great way to introduce your child to gestures.

Here is a list of interactive songs that will get you and your toddler reaching, pointing, and grooving:

  • Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
  • The Wheels on the Bus
  • The Itsy-Bitsy Spider
  • Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
  • One Little Finger
Little boy pointing and smiling.
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/help-babies-use-gestures/

5. Choice of two

From the earliest age, children communicate to meet their wants and needs. Offer the choice between two objects or activities by holding up each item, labeling it, and asking which one your toddler would like. This encourages reaching and pointing and allows your little one to become a more independent communicator.

From tiny gestures to lifelong communication

Mastering those first waves and points may seem like small steps, but for your little one, they’re giant leaps into the world of communication. By using these simple tips – following your finger, sharing gestures, offering choices – you’re not just keeping your child entertained, you’re using the building blocks of language.

Remember, every giggle and shared handclap is a celebration of understanding, paving the way for clear communication down the road. So unleash your inner child, get ready to copy some adorable gestures, and watch your child’s communication blossom, one tiny gesture at a time!

This article originally appeared in our January 2022 Sensory Solutions (issue 133):  https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/issue-133-sensory-solutions/ 

FAQs

Q: What are typical gestures for babies?

A: Typical baby gestures include reaching, waving, pointing, clapping, and nodding. These early movements help them express needs, share experiences, and pave the way for future spoken language.

Q: What are the milestones for talking?

A: Between 9 and 12 months, babies typically wave, point, and babble their first words like “mama.” By 18 months, they can use short phrases and understand simple questions, with clear sentences and complex ideas emerging around age 3.

Q: How do you diagnose delayed language development?

A: Diagnosis involves assessing a child’s receptive and expressive language skills through standardized tests, observations, and parent reports. Doctors may also consider hearing evaluations and medical factors to rule out underlying causes.

Q: Why are gestures important in child development?

A: Gestures are crucial for child development because they pave the way for spoken language. Before babies talk, they use waves, points, and reaches to communicate their needs and desires. These early interactions help them learn about the world around them and build the foundation for future language skills.

References

Capone, N.C. & McGregor, K. K. (2004). Gesture development: A review for clinical and research practices. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 47, 173-186.

Daymut, J. A. (2009). Joint attention skills and the child with autism. Retrieved from www.superduperinc.com

FIRST WORDS Project. (2014). Sixteen gestures by sixteen months. From FIRST WORDS Project, Florida State University. Retrieved at firstwordsproject.com

Goldin-Meadow, S. (2015). Gesture as a window onto communicative abilities: Implications for diagnosis and intervention. Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 22, 50-60.

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