Good communication development starts in the first year of life and goes far beyond learning how to talk. Good communication skills are the best tool to prevent behavior problems and make it easier to work through moments of frustration that all infants and toddlers face. Catching communication and language difficulties early can prevent potential problems later with behavior, learning, reading, and social interaction. Research on brain development reminds us that “earlier is better” when teaching young children. The most critical period for learning is during the first three years of a child’s life. Pathways in the brain develop as infants and young children learn from exploring and interacting with people and objects in their environment. The brain’s architecture is developing the most rapidly during this critical period and is the most sensitive to experiential learning. By age 3, most of the major brain circuits are mature, and later it becomes more difficult to make significant changes in a child’s growth trajectory.
By observing children’s early gestures, you can obtain a critical snapshot of their communication development. Even small lags in communication milestones can add up and impact a child’s rate of learning that is difficult to change later. So it’s important to remember that by 16 months, children should have at least 16 gestures. children should be using at least 2 new gestures each month between 9 and 16 months.
9 Months: Give, Shake head
At 9 months, children’s earliest gestures begin to develop from their actions—and the reactions of others. Children first learn to take an object. Then, as they are able to control their hand movements to release and drop an object, they gain experience from their parent holding out their hand to catch it—and they learn to give. Children learn to shake their head to indicate “no” by turning away from food they do not like and then looking back to see their parent respond by moving the undesired food away.
10 Months: Reach, Raise arms
At 10 months, children learn to reach through exploration and experiences with others, as they reach to take an object and to be picked up. As they learn to anticipate the reactions of others, they use a reach gesture as a signal—first, with their arm reaching out, then, with their open hand facing up, and with their arms raised to ask to be picked up.
11 Months: Show, Wave
At 11 months, children are motivated to share their interests with others. They learn to hold up and show objects to get others to look and notice what they’re interested in. Children are also motivated by the social experience of greeting in everyday routines where special people are coming and going. They learn to wiggle their hand to wave, with a mature wave developing later.
12 Months: Open hand, Point, Tap
At 12 months, children use an open-hand point with the fingers spread, and a tap with the fingers together, as an indicative gesture to draw the attention of others to things of interest. Children’s gestures become more clearly intentional and are often produced with emphasis and are now accompanied by grunts or early speech sounds.
13 Months: Clap, Blow a kiss
At 13 months, children begin to learn through observation— by observing others and copying what they do and say. They learn to use gestures, such as to clap their hands and blow a kiss, by watching others and imitating them. The gestures and words children are exposed to shape their vocabulary and drive their interest in learning.
14 Months: Index finger point, Shhh gesture
At 14 months, children point with the index finger to reference things at a distance, a sign that observational learning is solid and they are on the cusp of becoming a symbolic communicator. Children also use the index finger for the “shhh” gesture. Their growing repertoire of gestures propels the unfolding of spoken words.
15 Months: Head nod, Thumbs up, Hand up
At 15 months, you see symbolic gestures that are like words—a head nod or thumbs up to indicate “yes”, a wave in front of their face to indicate “stinky”, or a hand up to indicate “wait”. Gestures now reflect not only what the child is thinking about, but also that they know they are sharing ideas with others.
16 Months: Other symbolic gestures
At 16 months, other symbolic gestures develop– such as “I dunno”, “high 5”, or even the universal peace sign. Gestures now bolster the learning of spoken words.