Updated: May 12, 2021
Babies have a lot to learn before they are ready to talk. They need to learn reasons they want to communicate with others and how symbols work.
Without this foundation, children have little motivation to use speech. To give your child the best start for speech and language, help them build these skills.
SOCIAL INTERACTION: BIRTH TO 8 MONTHS
Infants begin learning social interaction skills as soon as they lock onto you with their intense baby gaze. They pull you in with their irresistible baby charm.
Every face-to-face interaction with you gives your baby information that builds learning pathways in the brain.
Babies learn the reasons they want to communicate well before they start using words. They learn to enjoy your company, to share interests with you, to get your attention, to get things they need, and to have fun with you.
A major goal at this stage is to encourage your child to spend more time with you in back-and-forth social exchanges. This lays a strong foundation for all later communication development.
Pay attention to your child’s preferences: energetic play or soft tickles, bouncing or rocking, listening to music or looking at books, a favorite toy or a new surprise. Use the activities and settings your child prefers when you want to increase the amount of time you enjoy together.
Learn more about social interaction development with this blog post: Social Interaction Is the Foundation for Language Learning.
Learn how social interaction build babies’ brains with this video.
GESTURES: 9 – 16 MONTHS
During this stage, children are learning that gestures can have meaning. Little ones use gestures to communicate before they start using words. Here's a checklist of 16 gestures that develop during this period, and activities that help your child learn them.
Children add about two new gestures each month during this period.
Gestures become meaningful over a period of time. At first your child uses a movement because it fits the situation. You respond as if the gesture has meaning. Over time your child learns that meaning, and uses the gesture on purpose in many different situations.
Your child tries to pull himself up your leg, so his arms are reaching up. You reach your arms down and pick him up. Later, he stands near you and puts his arms up or on your leg. Later still, he can be across the room and put his arms up to indicate he wants to be picked up.
Or your child turns her face away when you try to feed her something she doesn’t want. She turns her head back to see what will happen next. She learns that this head movement gets rid of the unwanted item, either by getting it out of range or getting you to put it away. Over time, you don’t need to get the food near her mouth before she turns her head. Later, this movement becomes useful for rejecting many different things in different locatioin.
When babies use a gesture on purpose to express a specific meaning, they are communicating.
BABY SIGN LANGUAGE HELPS
Babies can learn to use lots of movements to express ideas. That’s why teaching sign language to little ones is so successful. Gestures and sign language teach children how to use symbols to communicate.
Sometimes people are concerned that using gestures might slow down their child’s speech development. Just the opposite is true. The use of gestures is a good predictor of how effective a child's communication will be at age 3.
Gestures teach children how symbolic communication works. The more useful their communication becomes, the more they use it. They develop the habit of communicating for a variety of purposes.
Children transition from gestures to speech because talking is more efficient than gestures. When their social communication and gestures are well established, children are ready to start using speech.
Always respond to your child’s gestures as if they have meaning. If he’s reaching up, pick him up. If she’s reaching toward something, hand it or show it to her.
Imitate your child’s gesture and say the word you think it means: “No. No peas.”
Use lots of gestures when you talk with your child.
See more examples with tips on how to teach common gestures. Download this checklist.