Infants & Toddlers: How Babies Use Gestures To Communicate

From early on, babies know how to get your comfort and care.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K


EVOLUTION HAS PROVIDED BABIES WITH wonderful ways to get the loving attention and care that they need. When a baby is distressed, his cry is the most primitive and powerful tool for bringing help from a caregiver. By the time a baby is two or three months old, his dazzling smile or crooked grin evokes tenderness, smiles, and nurturance from adults who are delighted at this gesture of friendliness and pleasure.

Here's how babies use gestures to signal their emotions and needs:

Holding Onto You for Security Baby primates clutch and tightly hold onto their mother's furry body. Human babies also use clutching holds to help them feel safe and secure. As you carry a baby and hold her for feeding, she tugs on your hair, hangs onto your neck, or curls a tiny hand around your finger.

Getting to Know You In order to get to know you better, a nine-month-old will poke her fingers in your mouth and pull at your eyeglasses. Appreciate baby's efforts at getting acquainted more personally even when you need to protect your eyeglasses!

Gestures Reveal New Understandings At nine months, baby places your hand on the toy she wants you to set in motion. With this clever gesture, she has you make the toy move something still too difficult for her to manage.

Baby now knows that, in order for a toy to work, there must be an agent. And if she cannot manage the toy alone, she realizes that by gestures she can get you, her special adult, to set interesting toys in motion.

At about 10 months, babies perfect an imperious gesture to draw an adult's attention. They point with their forefinger to the toy you are to get down from the shelf. They hear a fire engine siren outside and point to the window to attract your attention so you can comment on the noise and interpret it for them. By 10 to 12 months, they lift their arms into the "up" gesture that means: "Please pick me up and carry me over to see what is happening!"


Babies under one year of age may have very few words. Using gestures is an important way for them to communicate their needs and interests. Your prompt attention to gestures helps babies feel competent. When you understand their repertoire of gestures, you are a wonderful play partner.


BECAUSE TODDLERS are walking, they are able to show you clearly where they want to go and what they want to explore. Watch where baby creeps-she is determined to get to , that interesting toy over in the corner! Label it for her and cheer her on. If baby has just started crawling, you might try to bring the toy a little closer before she gets discouraged.

Diving Into Your Lap for Reassurance Toddlers show their affection for you by crawling all over you as you sit or lie on the floor where they are playing. If another child gallops along and knocks down a block building, a toddler may throw herself in your lap. This gesture clearly says, "I feel disappointed and grumpy, and I need a big hug and reassurance from you!"

Using Gestures to Signal Bodily Needs When little ones are sleepy, they often rub their eyes, blink, and act whiny. Notice when baby suddenly wilts and needs you to cuddle and soothe her to sleep.

Hungry toddlers frequently act cranky. Be alert to these wordless signals that clearly indicate a child needs a drink and a nutritious snack. Developing Gentle Gestures Your toddler will also need your help in learning to be gentle. Young, children dash around and fling toys and food. They are not yet skillful at controlling wrist and arm movements. Be sure you lightly hold your hand over a toddler's hand as you demonstrate how to pat the doggie gently and how to turn the wrist so that the food stays on the spoon.

Using Gestures to Show Fear If you keep gerbils or other pets in the classroom, some toddlers may shrink away from them in fear. They place their hands in front of them as "protection." When you observe fearfulness in a child's gestures, be aware of her feelings and respect her desire for a slower and more cautious introduction to new creatures or people.


Toddlers respond with gestures to many of the words you use. Give children lots and lots of practice! If you ask them, toddlers will fetch a specific toy, roll a ball, tilt their sippy cup to ask for a drink, cover the baby bear with a blanket, or show you their shoes or their tummy. Use your words and cheerful requests to investigate and enrich toddlers' repertoire of gestures.

  • Subjects:
    Child and Infant Care, Child Development and Behavior, Communication and Language Development

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