Gestures Before Words
Children learn communication through observation, listening, and imitating those around them. When you think about communication milestones, you’re probably thinking about a child’s first word, or when they start putting two words together. But this also refers to all of the steps that lead to first words because these are just as important! Let’s talk about prelinguistic skills.
Prelinguistic skills are skills your baby uses to communicate with you non-verbally. These fun interactions between you and your child are necessary before your child can begin developing words; they demonstrate that your baby understands the meaning or intent behind communication. One very important prelinguistic skill is imitation. Imitation is when your little one copies you; this includes imitating facial expressions, sounds, gestures, and words.
Just like all developmental skills, prelinguistic skills develop over time. Some may appear early in infancy (such as imitation, facial expressions, and eye contact) and others develop later (such as joint attention and use of gestures). We’ve included a general timeline of communication milestones, beginning at infancy. It’s important to remember that not all children develop in the same way or at the same rate. These are general guidelines and it’s important to consult with your pediatrician or a speech language pathologist if you have concerns about your child’s development.
Our communication skills begin developing in infancy! An infant can orient themselves towards and respond to voices by turning their head and will look at faces that are close to them. They begin imitating another person’s smile when that person is close to them and communicating excitement by making sounds while moving their arms and legs.
At 3-4 months, we see babies express their happiness by independently turning and smiling. They imitate cooing sounds and will continue to copy sounds as they get older. By 6 months, they begin to imitate and use babbling sounds (bababa,dadada). This sets the stage for back-and-forth interactions, as well as imitation of more advanced verbal skills!
By 9 months, babies first gestures begin to take shape. Since babies practice these gestures through a process of give and take, social interaction is at the root of gesture development. Babies learn to take an object from their parents, control hand movements to hold or drop an object, and watch their parents catch falling objects. Through these same interactions, children also learn to give. If children do not want an item, like food, they learn to shake their heads as an early indication of “no.” Babies learn to continue using these gestures through parental or caregiver reinforcement. This could mean praise and excitement, as well as when a parent or caregiver moves an item they don’t want away from them.
Around 10 months, babies learn to reach for a desired object or for a person to pick them up. As babies discover that reaching achieves the desired result, reaching becomes a signal. From a sitting position, babies begin to raise arms with open hands facing up in order to be picked up.
At this stage, it is all about sharing with others. Children begin to pick up objects and show others items that interest them. They also begin to share greetings with familiar faces while they learn to wave by wiggling their fingers.
By 12 months, children show intention by using an open-hand point (palm slightly open and fingers spread as they build dexterity within the hand). They also learn to tap fingers together to draw others’ attention to their activities. At this stage, vocalizations like grunts and early speech sounds accompany gestures to help communicate intention.
By 13 months, children have built plenty of momentum in learning by imitating others. Through observation, they learn to clap their hands or use an open palm to blow a kiss. Associating gestures with verbal language helps support the child’s vocabulary and use of effective communication.
Around 14 months, the open-hand point evolves into an index-finger point. This gesture milestone enables children to specify objects at a distance and is a forerunner to symbolic communication. Children also begin to use this “pointer” finger to make the “shh” gesture. Making this gesture to imitate commands propels children toward spoken words.
By 15 months, use of symbolic gestures (movements that represent a word or phrase in meaning) are developing. Children use these gestures to inform or respond, and the motions are the precursors to conversations. For example, symbolic gestures include head nodding or a thumbs up to say “yes” or holding a hand up to say “wait.” They can also use their hands to make common expressions (such as waving a hand in front of the nose to imply that something is “stinky”).
As they discover that gestures effectively express words and thoughts, children continue to pick up on more and more symbolic gestures. These may include holding the palms up and open or shrugging for “I dunno,” spreading all fingers to give a high five, or using the index and middle finger to make a peace sign. As a general recommendation, a child who is 16 months should be using at least 16 gestures. Once children grasp the concept of gestures, they will be able to put a name to these expressions in the coming months.
Gestures are the stepping stones to verbal communication and there is a strong link between gestures and communication development. Research has suggested that children who produce more gestures early on are more likely to have a larger expressive vocabulary repertoire later on.
Along with language development, gestures play an important role in pragmatic skills and social interaction. As your child acquires more gestures, gestures often turn into a give-or-take interaction. Gestures help children learn and understand the meaning of interpersonal communication, including sharing, turn taking, body language, and facial expressions.
Here is a great online resource if you’re looking for more information about communication milestones: The First Words Project. Monitoring gestures can help parents identify possible delays in communication. As a reminder, these milestones are guidelines, and it’s important to consult with your pediatrician or a speech language pathologist if you have concerns about your child’s development. Not all children develop at the same rate! If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s prelinguistic and linguistic development, we’re here to help! Contact us here.