The point of your child's gestures
Masters in parenting series from The Doc Smitty
Everyone talks with their hands, some more than others. Babies and infants do too.
Babies typically start to gesture between 8 and 12 months. Don't get me wrong, they're not exactly ready to coach third base. Gestures at this age typically start as pointing at objects of interest. You can think of them as standing for words such as "this" or "that." Translation: "I'm hungry for that bottle and you better give it to me or you're going to hear about it."
The next phase of gesture development comes not long after this, around 18 months. Now, gestures can actually start to mean something by themselves. They are usually simple answers or commands that they have seen repeatedly. Some examples will be shushhing and putting their finger to their mouths or shaking their head side to side. Translation: "Be quiet" and "NO!" (In case that one was tricky).
After this, gestures can begin to be more sophisticated. You can start to predict a child's ability to develop two-phrase sentences when they start to use a gesture with a word to demonstrate a relationship between two things. An example of this is when our 18 month old points to a toy and says, "Caden." You can start to predict when a child will use a two-word phrase based on when they do this type of gesturing.
So, how can we use this information to help our baby develop language?
1. Talk with your hands when talking with your children (including baby sign language). Studies have been mixed on whether this actually aid language development or not, but I believe that some of the biggest and best studies do show that it helps. I recommend that you use accompanying spoken words with your signs and gestures so that children can begin to learn the vocabulary associated with the gestures. Studies have definitely shown that parents who gesture more have children who gesture more and babies who gesture have large receptive vocabularies.
2. Point to objects as you describe them. This makes sure that you child is associating the correct term with the correct object. It also encourages the child's use of gestures and pointing as a way of communicating and learning which could stand to benefit them in the future.
3. Allow your child to use gestures, but don't let them completely substitute for language. You have seen this right? A 3 year old points up on the counter and grunts and something about the grunt or the point or something lets mom know exactly what he is needing, so she dutifully goes and get it. At this point, I recommend that mom encourages the child by asking them to "use your words" or saying, "I'm not sure I understand you. What is it that you wanted?"
Of course, I'm not talking about children with true speech delay. They need appropriate evaluation by their doctor and work with speech therapy. I'm talking about the child who has the proper words but seems to rely on pointing and grunting (often followed quickly by throwing themselves on the ground and kicking and screaming).
Susan Goldin-Meadow and Martha Wagner Alibali wrote a great summary of the research of gestures in both children and adults that I recommend for further reading.
Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville . He attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joined Cook Children's after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his 3 young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.