Language skills targets for babies and toddlers: 2. Gestures

Mar 4, 2016

For babies and young toddlers, using gestures is an important step towards using language. Actions like waving, shaking the head for no, clapping and pointing show a desire to communicate. They typically emerge just before first words. In this post I’ll explain what early gestures are, why they matter, and how to encourage your little one to start using them.


It is usually easier for babies to make deliberate physical movements than word-like sounds, so most use gestures to express themselves before speech. The typical earliest gestures are:

  • Lifting arms to be picked up
  • Waving
  • Clapping
  • Shaking head ‘no’
  • Pointing

With actions like these little ones connect to other people and learn to express their feelings and wishes. This kind of interaction is fundamental to learning to talk.

Encouraging gestures is a great way to help your child towards starting to use language. Here are some suggestions for building gestures into your daily life:

  1. Pause just before picking up your child and say ‘Want up?’ while raising both hands. Wait a moment for a possible response, then lift your child, saying ‘Up!’
  2. Remember to wave when saying ‘Hello’ or ‘Bye-bye’. When you’re finished playing with a toy wave it bye-bye as you put it away, saying ‘Bye-bye ball’, ‘Bye-bye book’, and so on each time.
  3. Clap as a little celebration when you finish a task or when your child does something you’d like to encourage: rolling, sitting, walking, eating, reaching, picking up, stacking, rolling a car, putting an object in a container… All these things can be celebrated with clapping and saying ‘Yey!’ so your child will learn clapping expresses happiness and excitement.
  4. Head shaking usually precedes nodding, just as ‘no’ usually precedes ‘yes’. Little children hear ‘no’ a lot; if you shake your head on saying ‘no’, you probably won’t need to go out of your way to encourage this gesture in your child!
  5. Pointing is an especially important gesture because by pointing at something a child can ask another person to share their interest. This is called ‘joint attention’, and it’s very useful for language learning. When our children point, we know what interests them and what to talk about. We can give names for lots of things by pointing, so it’s definitely worth helping a child to learn to understand and use pointing. Here’s how:
  • A great way to calm an older baby is to carry them around a room pointing at things – pictures on the wall, lights, what you can see out the window, who’s on the sofa, what’s cooking… Most parents already know this! The good news is this calming technique also encourages pointing!
  • When you’re carrying out your daily routines you can point out what you’re about to do: point to the toothbrush, the light switch, the storybook, just before you use them, and next your little one will be pointing them out for you.
  • Point at pictures in books, especially when labeling them. Gently guide your little one’s hand to touch the picture.
  • It takes a while before a child can isolate their index finger when pointing, and at first this gesture may be done with the whole hand. One simple way to encourage the fine motor skills for pointing is to give your child opportunities to pick up small, safe pieces of food, such as cooked rice or pasta shapes.

All the first gestures are very useful for children. With them little ones can say they’ve had enough or they don’t want something, that they want to be picked up, that they want to be given a particular thing, or that they want an adult to look at and even talk about something they find interesting.

Pay attention to gestures and treat them as important communication by responding to them. This way we show our children that communication is powerful! This will encourage them to communicate more.

This post is the second in a series on communication skills young children develop on their way to better and better communication. Next up, from gestures to simple sign language!

If you liked this article, please share on Facebook or Pinterest – thank you!

Looking for more strategies and ideas to get your little one talking? Check out my book for strategies that work, and hundreds of fun playtime activities to share.

This post is shared on The Mommy Monday Blog Hop and Fab Friday.



  1. Su {Ethan & Evelyn}
    March 14, 2016

    Great list! Thank you very much for this. Whilst I was putting my 22 months old baby to sleep today. I found myself watching her sing herself to sleep with ‘5 little fingers – where are you?’. She was doing the finger pointing and all. It was the cutest. I wish I could have it on tape but I didn’t want to disturb her lullaby. Thank you very much for linking up with us on #FabFridayPost

    • Kathleen
      March 15, 2016

      That’s so cute! I know that feeling where you want to photo or video a moment, but can’t bear to disturb them! My oldest is especially camera-shy and often tells me to stop 🙂 Thanks for visiting, and for hosting the link-up.


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