What are gestures and why are they important?
Gestures are movements of the head, hands, arms and body that send a message – actions like pointing, waving and nodding. From those beautiful early smiles in the first few months to the nine month old pointing at the toy they want Mama to fetch, gestures are the first exciting outward signs that babies are on the path to language.
Gestures are an important way babies and young children deliberately communicate with caregivers to make themselves understood. Early gestures can be used to make a request (‘give me that’), to show something (‘look at that’) or to ask a question (‘what is that?’). Later the gestures expand to represent things (like flapping arms to indicate a ‘bird flying’). Gestures are key indicators that reveal to speech language experts where a baby is at in their language development, because gestures and language stem from the same area of the brain - whereas motor movements (which are also important for language development) originate from a different area.
Gestures used at 14 months are an accurate predictor of vocabulary at 42 months!
It all begins with imitation. At around 6 months old, babies start to imitate their caregiver’s movements (and words too, but this post in our language series is focussing on movements). They’re practicing reaching, arm sweeps, and head turns that they will use very deliberately later on to get their message across.
Once they master the movements, over the next few months babies will gesture to communicate, performing actions like opening and shutting their hand when they want to pick something up, hiding their face, playing ‘peek-a-boo’, wiggling, kicking, raising their arms to be picked up, and holding a toy out for their caregiver to look at. (At first they won’t want to let the toy go, but later they will give it to their caregivers and take it back off you – hours of fun!) They also start doing cute clever things like bringing a cup up towards their mouth or holding a phone to their ear. In a way, they are actually naming things through these gestures. Babies may even create their own gestures that mean specific things to them, for example pointing to their mouth to eat.
As babies reach around 8-9 months of age, they move from using gestures silently to starting to make deliberate sounds with gestures, then much later on, at around 18 months, they will use a recognisable word with the gesture. The words replace the gestures eventually, but not completely - we all gesture throughout our lives to add emphasis and meaning to what we’re saying.
Communicating with Intent
When babies do start to deliberately use gestures (at around 8 months old) they reveal that they know they might be able to make something happen. Expert Robert E. Owens Jr calls this the ‘emergence of intentional communication’. They’re starting to use forward thinking skills (looking beyond the ‘now’ to make something happen in the future) which is really quite sophisticated in ones so young!
It is clear when a baby starts to gesture with an intention to get their message across, because they do a combination of three things:
- They make eye contact with the caregiver.
- They make a sound to signal they want something.
- They will try persistently to communicate, repeating or changing their gestures to make themselves understood.
Take the example of a baby looking at a caregiver, then touching them then waving or pointing at a toy they want. This is an amazing feat – baby is showing that they understand communication is a two-way street by using a communication technique (called ‘joint reference’) that shows they know that two (or more) people can focus on the same thing at the same time. This is a vital step towards language because as discussed in '6-12 months. Language starting to land' it’s within the framework of focussing on something together that caregivers teach all those specific words and phrases to their babies. And it all starts with the ‘gazing’ gesture!
Pointing is the most common gesture produced at ten months of age.* Babies might use the whole hand to point or stretch one finger out – generally they do the most efficient gesture to achieve the result they want. Clever! Of interest here too is that if the caregiver doesn’t respond positively to the point (by reacting or showing that they understand) babies won’t bother to point as much next time. Makes sense really, they’re learning so much during these months that if what they try doesn’t work they will quickly move on to trying something else. Some theorists are also convinced that pointing is a child’s attempt to influence their caregiver in a social way.
Here’s a great video from Before their first words outlining the development of the pointing gesture.
Reaching is also a very significant gesture. A baby will make eye contact, reach towards something and may make a noise that tells their caregiver that they want that thing. So this gesture isn’t a ‘reach’ at all, rather a request! Officially to an expert, ‘requesting’ is when a baby leans forward and reaches his or her arms out towards the thing they want or when they make a ‘give to me’ gesture (often accompanied by the noise they make when they want something).
Later on, tantrums also include a variety of communicative gestures!
Between 18-21 months there is huge burst of language development as the child learns lots of new words (more on this later in our language series). Caregivers can set children up for huge learning during these months by encouraging each new gesture as babies master them. Celebrate each point, each reach, each little opening and shutting fist, because they are vital in baby's development of language!
This is broad general development information, so don’t stress if your baby is doing or not doing these things - every personality is different and each baby creates their own individual journey to language. Do however, seek professional help if you have any concerns.
Waving hello, Liz xx
Information for the Eardrops blog language series was guided and overseen by Dr Jayne Newbury, Researcher in Child Language (University of Canterbury), with the comprehensive information in Language Development: An Introduction by Robert E. Owens, Jr. (2015). This post was written by Liz Donnelly, creator of Eardrops, audio stories that help develop listening skills and improve everyday language in young children.
* This fact from here