Baby Talk: Why it's important to tune in to a baby's gestures

The way in which we interact with babies from birth - and even during pregnancy – can have a huge impact on their early development. Sharing stories, songs and rhymes all support a baby’s language development, but tuning into your baby in other ways can also impact their communication skills.

Babies use lots of gestures to get the attention of people around them. They may point to things that interest them or that they want others to notice or hold objects out to show you. These gestures and actions all serve the purpose of engaging others in conversation – even if the infant is non-verbal. To a baby, these gestures are a conversation and a game they want to play. How we respond can have a massive impact on their language development. 

To a baby, these gestures are a conversation and a game they want to play.

In every interaction, it’s useful to stop and think ‘what is the baby trying to tell me?’ or ‘why are they showing me this object and what is it that interests them?’. If we can change our thinking to see the interaction from the child’s point of view, it opens up the possibility of a high quality language interaction which includes turn taking, and making conversation around an object that has the infant’s attention. The temptation may just be to take the object and say something like ‘thank you’ or to even provide a basic description like ‘that’s a ball’. But diverting the infant’s attention, ignoring their chosen topic of conversation, or using language that is unrelated to what they’re showing you, can lead to a lower quality language interaction. 

Although the amount of language a child hears can be an important predictor of their own language development, what’s more important is quality interaction and speaking with children – not just to them. Responding to children’s interests and learning to interpret their subtle cues in a conversation can mean more attuned interaction. Conversations around children’s interests will help them feel valued and supported.

Gestures are an important part of baby’s early communications. It’s sometimes easy to overlook these games where babies hold an object out and expect the carer to take it. But aside from being an early form of conversation, these games are a baby’s way of playfully communicating.

So the next time a baby holds something out for you to take, think about what they’re showing you and telling you. See the game from their perspective and turn it into a conversation. The way you respond and engage in the game can have a positive impact on their language development.