Updated: May 12, 2021
“Don’t encourage your child to use gestures because then they won’t use their speech.” Right? Wrong! Gestures are the earliest form of symbolic communication. They build a bridge to speech. In fact, how well a child uses gestures before 16 months can predict their language skills at age 3.
Many parents count the number of words their child is using. Instead, you should count the meanings your child expresses. Any symbol your child uses to share their meaning with another person is valuable and worth counting.
Language uses symbols to express meanings. A symbol is anything used to express a meaning, to represent an object or idea. These symbols may be spoken or written words, pictures or icons, and gestures.
Before they can talk, children use gestures as symbols. They consistently use a certain action to represent an idea. They learn the gestures from seeing adults use them to express a meaning.
Children learn the power of communication when they use these early gestures. People get excited. Everybody pays attention. Parents do something the child wants them to do. Communication gets results!
Successful communication motivates children to use it even more. Gestures are where your child develops the habit of sharing meanings with other people. They learn all the different reasons we want to communicate with others—reasons like to get something, share ideas, entertain others, find out something, have fun, get a result, and continue an interaction.
Your child’s speech and language are built on their social communication skills. (Listen to the podcast for more on how social communication begins in infancy.)
Your child’s thinking skills are ready for using symbols months before they are ready to start using speech. Gestures fill the gap until your child learns the complicated movements required for speech. You can teach your child important early gestures with this checklist with teaching tips.
16 GESTURES BY 16 MONTHS
Research in child develop has shown that children typically use 16 meaningful gestures by the time they are 16 months old. You can read more about this at the First Words Project website.
The six gestures in this post are those that typically develop the earliest, before a child starts to say any words. They learn the gestures when adults use them and encourage children to use the actions along with them.
When you use the gesture, say the word at the same time. Your example is important for teaching your child the words that express meanings they are most interested in using. As months go by, a child typically starts to say the word along with the gesture they are using. Slowly, the use of the gesture drops out as speech gets easier for the child.
Giving your child the example is called modeling. You model the gesture and the word when you use it with your child.
When you encourage your child to use a gesture, that is called prompting. You should model a gesture frequently for at least a couple of weeks before you start using a prompt. Use a gentle prompt like touching or moving your child's hand.
Your child’s gestures will be sloppy but that’s okay. They are still learning to imitate and to control their muscles. As long as their gesture is consistent so you can recognize it and know what they mean, that counts as communication!
Click here to download a checklist of the gestures and some strategies you can use to help your child develop them.
THE FIRST SIX GESTURES
Your child will put something in your hand when you hold out your hand and say, “Give me…”
Your child first learns to take objects that you offer. During turn taking, you are practicing both giving and reaching.
To build the “give” gesture, hold out an object that they have to reach for. Wait. If they don’t reach, move it closer.
When it’s your turn to get something from your child, hold out your hand and wait. Or hold out your hand and say, “Give me…” Wait. If your child doesn’t give the object to you, move your hand closer to the object and wait.
If your child doesn’t give the object after you wait, you can move their hand with the object to near your hand. Wait again.
It’s important for your child to learn that they are the person who gives the object. If they are not giving it to you, take that as a signal that they want it. Don’t force it. You can try again later.
If they do give you the object, take your turn quickly and hold it out for your child to take a turn. If it’s fun for your child to see your reaction when you get a turn, you’ll have more success in getting the object back again.
SHAKE HEAD “NO”
This gesture gets shaped as your child responds to you feeding them. Shaping means the gesture starts out as an action that's used for something else. The movement gets closer and closer to what we want to see, based on how we respond to (or reinforce) actions that could turn into that behavior.
in this case, your child doesn’t start out moving their head as a meaningful gesture. But when they turn their head away, the food is gone. That’s reinforcing all by itself, so they keep doing it. Over time you respond to the movement as if it has the meaning of rejecting the food. You offer a different food or put the food away. Your child got the desired result so they start using the movement on purpose. With experience they learn the movement works in other situations too. Now they shake their head on purpose to mean “no thank you.” (We’ll imagine they’re using their manners).
Model (say) the word “no” when your child turns their head away. Act as if your child means that word. You probably want your child to keep eating, but pause long enough to let your child know you understand what they meant. Maybe let them take a turn with the spoon, or offer them a different food. Come back to the first food in a minute if needed.
Your child first learns to reach during your turn taking activities, as described with GIVE. The reach means, “I want my turn” or “I want that thing.”
Reaching starts to expand beyond this familiar situation. Your child will hold their hand out toward a food they see on the table or toward a person they see across the room. When you respond as if they are requesting the item, you are shaping their use of reaching to make a request.
Reaching with both arms develops now, too. First your child learns to lift their arms up to grab onto you as you are picking them up. Over time, your child starts to anticipate being picked up when they see you reaching for them, so they lift up their arms before you touch them. Later, they lift up their arms in the gesture that means, “Pick me up, please.” (Again, I’m sure they are using their manners.)
Model the word “up” as you pick up your child and when you see your child reaching as if they want to be picked up.
Waving is usually the first gesture children learn by imitating others. We don't shape it from a movement they’re already using. It’s an easy movement to make, and people love waving at little ones. Your child probably sees people waving at them a lot.
Since it’s such a sociable thing to do and most people have done this with other children, we naturally prompt a child to return the wave. Prompting is when we give some kind of hint or assistance for what the child can do next. With waving, we start with a physical prompt—moving your child’s arm up and down.
We wave the child’s arm and say, “Bye-bye.” The other person grins and waves some more. There’s lots of social reinforcement for waving. Over time, your child lifts their arm as soon as they see someone wave.
Waves start as a whole-arm movement. Later, your child will move their wrist to wave their hand. Even later, they will learn to move their fingers to wave. In the beginning, we’re happy when they lift their arm or flap it because we can see that they are greeting us on purpose.
(I like to point out that you should expect the same kind of gradual development when your child starts talking. They start with just a few sounds and gradually get more precise with their pronunciation. Speech involves a lot more muscles and coordination between the brain, mouth, throat and lungs. We need to encourage talking by accepting the meaning of the words. Clearer speech will come over time. Just remember, speech is harder than waving and it takes years for articulation skills to completely develop.)
Pointing develops as your child masters joint attention. Your child has been working on social interaction skills since birth. When they’ve mastered the idea of joint attention, they notice what you are looking at. They also want you to notice what they’re interest in.
You model pointing during your interactions. When your finger is on or near an object, this helps your child notice what you are noticing. Sometimes the item you point to is not near your finger, but you use bigger movements to encourage your child to turn their eyes toward the object.
Your child’s pointing starts out like reaching—their arm is straight and hand is open. When you read books together you model pointing to pictures. You child will pat the picture with their whole hand. With lots of practice, they start to use just a finger.
Pointing with a finger takes lots of practice. Many other activities help develop the muscles used in pointing. Around this time your child likes to explore toys or household objects by poking a finger into an opening. (Yes, including the light sockets!)
Use the work “look” when you point. When you see your child pointing, act excited when you look at it and say, “Look!”
If your child’s speech is developing slowly don’t be afraid to encourage their use of gestures. Using more gestures will help them learn they can be a successful communicator. It also helps reduce the frustration of not being understood, and the upset that can result.
Don't forget to download the checklist of all 16 gestures, with suggestions for supporting their development.
NEXT: 10 more gestures that teach your child to be an effective communicator