Infants: 16 Gestures by 16 Months
While we may not think about it as we go along our everyday lives, effective communication involves so much more than just talking. Facial expressions, gestures, and body language all play a role in expressing ourselves, interpreting what others are saying, and how well others understand what we say.
This communication development begins during infancy. Foundational communication development begins during interaction with parents and early-childhood caregivers. These interactions set into motion the communication skills needed for learning and social settings throughout childhood. Research has also shown that communication is the number-one tool for preventing behavioral problems by allowing children to express their wants, needs, and frustrations clearly.
Because the brain’s architecture and circuits develop rapidly during the first, it is important to monitor gesture milestones during this period. Studies also indicate that gesture development during this period can predict language acquisition two years later – an important building block for all future academic success. Monitoring any gesture delays can also help with early identification of any related physical or cognitive issues that can make performing these movements more difficult.
To simplify your approach to monitoring infant gestures, another way of putting it is that, roughly speaking, babies should have at least 16 gestures by 16 months. The order of gesture acquisition may vary somewhat from child to child, but you should notice your child using around 2 new gestures each month between the ages of 9 months and 16 months.
9 Months to 16 Months
9 Months: Give, Shake Head
By 9 months, a baby’s 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 interactions, children learn to give. If children do not want an item like food, they learn to shake their heads as an early indication of “no.” They then receive reinforcement of the meaning by seeing parents or caregivers move the items away.
10 Months: Reach, Raise Arms
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.
11 Months: Show, Wave
At this stage, it is all about sharing with others. Children begin to pick up objects and show others the items that interest them. They also begin to share greetings with familiar faces, learning to wave by wiggling their fingers.
12 Months: Open-Hand Point, Tap
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’ attentions to their activities. At this stage, vocalizations like grunts and early speech sounds also accompany gestures to help communicate intention.
13 Months: Clap, Blow a Kiss
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. Gestures often integrate with word meanings to help drive vocabulary and effective communication.
14 Months: Index-Finger Point, Shh Gesture
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 use this “pointer” finger to make the shh gesture. Making this gesture to imitate commands propels children toward spoken words. As an added bonus, making the “shh” sound is also an exercise in oral-motor skills.
15 Months: Head Nod, Thumbs Up, Hand Up, Wave
By 15 months, children make gains in what are known as symbolic gestures (movements that represent a word or phrase in meaning). Children use these gestures to inform or respond, and the motions are the precursors to conversations. Symbolic gestures include head nod or 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 wave a hand in front of the nose to imply “stinky”).
16 Months: Range of Symbolic Gestures
After discovering that gestures effectively express words and thoughts, by 16 months children may pick up a range of 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. Once children grasp the concept of gestures, they will be able to put a name to these expressions in the coming months.
Why Are Gestures Important Childhood Milestones?
Gestures are the forerunners to the beginner vocabulary that children acquire starting between 18 months and 21 months. When children make a gesture and receive the anticipated response, they begin to realize that they can apply names to meaning. Gestures provide the foundation for children to apply names to objects and needs – allowing them to pick up language quickly. An absence of these gesture building blocks can cause a delay in language acquisition.
In addition to language development, gestures play an important role in social interaction. As parents can see with the 9-month milestones, gestures usually all begin with give or take. Gestures help children learn the nuances of interpersonal communication, including body language, facial expressions, and sharing.
Finally, monitoring gestures can help parents identify any gaps in communication and determine if their child may be a candidate for early childhood intervention. A specialist can help bridge language gaps early and provide insight on other potential causes (such as muscular development or cognitive differences). This early intervention can give your child the tools needed for lifelong learning success.