It's No Charade: Baby Gestures Could Help Speaking

New study says the more a baby gestures, the bigger her vocabulary.

ByABC News via logo
February 17, 2009, 10:34 PM

Feb. 18, 2009 — -- Does your baby shake her head when you try to feed her vegetables? Though that may be frustrating from a nutritional perspective, it can mean good things for her educational future.

A new study from the University of Chicago suggests that the more gestures babies make at 14 months, the bigger their vocabularies will be. The size of a child's vocabulary is a key predictor of how well he or she will do in school.

"Good Morning America" parenting contributor Ann Pleshette Murphy explains what the study means and how parents can encourage a child's gestures.

So how do a baby's gestures translate into school smarts?

Simple gestures are the fundamentals of communication -- shaking your head, pointing at something you want or a baby raising his or her arms to be picked up. The University of Chicago study found that the more gestures a baby used at 14 months, the more words he had in his vocabulary at 3½ years old.

Can you teach a baby gestures?

To a certain extent, yes. You don't have to drill your child; what's more important is how you respond to the gestures. You need to gesture and talk a lot as well. That can mean doing something as simple as waving bye-bye.

It's modelling, and the more you do, the more you encourage them. You can say, "Show me what you want." And this is important when they are pre-verbal. When they raise their arms to be picked up and you say, "Oh you want to be picked up?" that teaches them they can ask with their mouths

And this helps with tantrums as well?

Helping a child to say with their hands what they can't yet say with their mouths will not only build vocabulary, but reduce tantrums and increase the parental bond.

When they are 14 months, babies get really frustrated at not being able to communicate. Teaching them these gestures helps reduce their frustration and the number of tantrums they throw.

What's at the heart of this is a nurturing interaction. You're telling the baby, "What you're saying does matter to me, I am paying attention to you." And that stimulates brain activity.

What if you're not seeing a lot of gestures from your child?

Gesturing can start around 10 months. If your child isn't gesturing by 14 months, that could indicate a problem, and parents should have their child's hearing checked.

Is there a difference between girls and boys?

Girls tend to be more verbal than boys and start to talk a month or two earlier. There's even evidence that female fetuses move their mouths more than males.

When should children usually start using words and sentences?

Two-year-olds can generally say two-word sentences, 3-year-olds can say three-word sentences, but after that, language explodes. Fifty words seems to be the magic number. Once a kid knows that many words, their ability to learn new ones increases massively. Most children say more than 150 words by the time they are 20 months old, and 300 or so by their second birthday.

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