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Research shows infants can create an entire vocabulary with hand gestures.


How many times have you wished you could know what your 10-month-old is telling you when she babbles? How often do you feel frustrated and inadequate because you can't understand her, especially when she's so intent on what she's ``saying'?

It may be easier to figure out than you think.In the months before babies are able to verbalize, most of them use their hands to communicate. We just don't realize it.

Sure, we all notice the first time a 7-, 8- or 9-month-old flaps his hand bye-bye. We burst with pride and mark the milestone in the baby book, but we could do more.

New research shows that babies are capable of many gestures, not just imitating yours but initiating their own, creating an entire vocabulary that allows for real conversations. When parents tune in to this, there's improved communication that reduces frustration on both sides and enriches the parent-child relationship: He feels better about you because you understand him, and you feel better about him because he's so much more capable than you ever thought.

It's not news that babies engage in what researchers call manual babbling; it was first documented in the early 1900s. ``All babies gesture in some way,' says educational psychologist Jenny Singleton of the University of Illinois.

You're not a bad parent if you don't catch on, however.

``You don't hurt your baby's development if you never tune in to this,' says developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff, professor at the University of Washington/Seattle. His area of specialty is infant development.

That's because there are many other ways in which parents do tune in. In infancy, for instance, parents learn to distinguish between various cries. And consider this communication just a few months later: Baby looks at mom, looks at a toy, looks back at mom, then at the toy again. Mom says: ``Would you like your teddy?' and baby lights up.

These nonverbal dialogues that parents tune in to instinctively are what lead babies to get a sense of themselves. ``It's how she comes to trust the world,' says Gilian Dowley McNamee, a professor at the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development in Chicago. ``That's important stuff,' she adds.

Although communicating by gesturing is not necessary, Meltzoff notes, ``it does enrich.' Often, it occurs without any conscious effort, says psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor at the University of Chicago and a leading researcher on gesturing.

Pointing is a good example. ``It develops from reaching,' she says. ``The baby wants something, leans toward it, reaches, grunts. The parent responds. Soon the reach becomes a point, a gimme gesture. We respond without thinking twice.'

We model gesturing without thinking twice, too: the crooked finger for ``come here'; a finger in front of the lips for ``quiet'; your head resting on your hands for sleep.

Baby's imitation of these gestures means there's a lot going on in that little brain. ``It means she's learning about symbols, that one thing can stand for something else,' says developmental psychologist Linda Acredolo of the University of California/Davis. ``It means that she can follow someone else's lead, that she has the capacity to recall something and that she wants to connect with another person.'

In order for a baby to speak her first word, all of this must come together along with the ability to remember specific motor movements in a particular sequence. That motor movement is very difficult, however, typically the last piece to fall into place. That is why babies don't say their first word until 10 to 14 months and build a vocabulary slowly.

Gesturing, on the other hand, can occur without that motor skill, sometimes as early as seven or eight months, according to Acredolo, who has spent 13 years researching it. Her recently published book (``Baby Signs, How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk,' Contemporary Books, 1996, with co-author and developmental psychologist Susan Goodwyn) shows parents how to interpret a baby's signals and how to develop enough signs together to have conversations.

The first step, she says, is to model a gesture as you speak. For instance, while you say, ``Want a drink?' tip your thumb to your mouth. ``See the doggie?' and stick your tongue out and pant. While her book offers all sorts of gestures, from nouns like airplane to concepts such as ``I don't know,' Acredolo stresses that these are just guidelines.

``It can be any sign you feel like,' she says. Should it be American Sign Language? Not necessarily: ``Many ASL signs are too complicated,' she says. Not surprisingly, this is controversial. Singleton, who works with normal and hearing-impaired children, says it is not confusing for a deaf child to start out with simple gestures and move into ASL later.

What Acredolo likes most about gesturing is how exciting it is to parents. ``They're amazed at how alert their babies are, at what they notice about the world around them.'


Model gestures by using them as you speak but don't mold a child's hands. Let her come to gesturing on her own.

Some children imitate gestures within a week, others not for months. Some never create their own, others do all the time.

Research shows that gesturing does not delay speech. Indeed, some studies show it's a facilitator. There are positive implications from that: Children who speak early are less prone to tantrums because they get less frustrated at being unable to communicate.

Parents with difficult or feisty children may benefit most from gesturing because of its ability to reduce frustration.

The more you reinforce gestures - ``Oh, you're saying ...' - the more your child is likely to do.

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