Throughout Sophie’s infancy, her mom sang songs to her while using gestures. When singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, mom reached up high with both arms and held the gesture to demonstrate “Up above the world so high.” Sophie slowly began to imitate mom’s gesture by holding her arms up too. Mom loved Sophie’s imitation, and started to use the gesture for “up” while always saying the word “up” when she reached for a toy on a high shelf, before picking Sophie up (out of the car seat, highchair, stroller, bathtub, change table, etc.) and when they noticed birds, airplanes and helicopters flying in the sky.
At nine months, it was no surprise Sophie started to use gestures to communicate what she wanted and needed. When she puts her arms up into the air, her mom understood Sophie wanted to be picked up. Mom bent down, made eye contact with Sophie and said “Up! I’m picking you uuuuup,” as she lifted her into the air. Mom held Sophie above her head and patiently waited (for as long as she could!) for Sophie to take a communication turn. Mom was waiting for a gesture such as “down,” an approximation of the word “down,” or any verbal / gesture attempt.
In this latter scenario, mom was taking advantage of a routine activity to encourage Sophie’s communication. She wanted Sophie to request action, to initiate language or gesture. When Sophie communicated the gesture “up,” mom interpreted and verbally labeled “up” and then expanded Sophie’s attempt with “…Pick you up.”
By 12 months, first verbal words should make their appearance, and by 16 months many children will begin to use a gesture with a word. At this point Sophie may lift her arms to be picked up, and say “up” simultaneously.
Soon after, Sophie may build upon this by saying “Mommy,” while she holds her arms up in the air. Using a word with one meaning (Mommy) and a gesture with a different meaning (up) at the same time is a step closer to placing two words together. Two word verbal utterances are expected by age two.
The more gestures a child has, the more opportunities to communicate. Gestures don’t need to be formal signs from American Sign Language, or even toned-down baby signs (as you may have seen in a video or class with your child – these baby signs can be fun, but they probably won’t help your baby speak earlier). Optimal gestures include pointing, waving, shaking the head no, blowing (for bubbles, or candles), sniffing (to indicate a poopy diaper, or a bunny), wiggling fingers (as you may do when you sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) for star, waving your hand in front of your face to indicate “hot” and clinking cups together for “cheers”. Consistently using these critical gestures in interactive ways will help give your child an edge on language development.
You shouldn’t have to go out of your way to incorporate gestures. Think about the vocabulary you use in daily routines and consider symbolic gestures that you may normally use. Consider gestures such as: big, small, hungry / eat, thirsty / drink, wash / bath, clean, pour, read / book, etc.
It may take a few months for your child to pick up on a particular gesture, and then a few more months for the gesture to turn into a verbal word. Stick with using the gestures and always be specific with your word choices. Avoid vague words such as this, that, these, those, here, there, thing, it – use specific vocabulary so your child will too.
Stephanie Sigal, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a speech therapist working with children on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side of Manhattan. She would be happy to speak with you about concerns you have for your child’s language development. You can reach Stephanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.