toddler and mom
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Your toddler and body language

Your toddler and body language

There’s a reason it’s such an important milestone when your toddler says her first words, but that doesn’t mean words are the only way her language skills are growing. Toddlers get better at communicating in words, but they also get much better at expressing themselves using their bodies as they grow from one-year-olds into more-year-olds. More than that, encouraging toddlers’ nonverbal communication and communication through body language is an important part of encouraging their verbal skills as well.

Body language supporting verbal skills

When toddlers start to get good at making their feelings known by gesturing, pointing, and asking with their eyes, it can feel like a step back from verbal communication, but in reality, a developing understanding of body language is an important counterpoint for the development of verbal language. It might seem like responding to nonverbal communication isn’t a great way to encourage Baby to use her words, but recognizing and encouraging her efforts to communicate through body language, signs, and pointing, as well as through words, encourages her to keep trying new things, and boosts her confidence in her ability to make herself understood. If you understand what she is asking for when she points to her stuffed kitty, saying “You want the kitty?” and handing the toy to her and is actually a great way to encourage her to take more risks with her language in the future, like trying new words, new phrases, and maybe even some attempts at sentences.

Body language as a stepping stone

Body language is the first kind of language Baby ever learned, but it starts out one-sided – when she was younger, she started out by instinctively physically reacting to what she felt and wanted. The communication began when you, your partner, or another caregiver, noticed and interpreted what she was reacting to and responded, giving your then-infant her first understanding of the fact that she can have an effect on her environment, and the way she reacts with her body can have an effect on the world around her.

Her language skills have grown a lot since those very first steps towards language, but your toddler’s verbal skills are still pretty new, and may not feel quite natural yet. This means that, when she is agitated, tired, or upset, she may be more likely to fall back into communication through gestures, body language, and crying to get her point across.

On the other hand, though, growing language skills often happen at the same time that body language and gestures are starting to grow more complex. The development of language is closely related to the way toddlers play in that it starts to develop at around the time that imaginative play, or “playing pretend,” starts to emerge. This is probably related to the development of symbolic thinking. Words are some of the first symbols children encounter, and they can be used to describe and stand in for just about anything in the world. Once children start to understand that they can use words to indicate something as simple as more milk in their cereal, or as complex as another human being, it makes sense that they’ll also start to understand that the shiny toy car in the living room is a stand-in for the giant vehicle you bring them around town in – or that blowing a kiss is a stand-in for the way she will miss you when you’re gone.

Encouraging both verbal and body language

The main way you teach Baby about body language is by modeling it to her, in the way your body communicates your moods to her when you talk. When you communicate with Baby nonverbally, whether you mean to or not, you’re teaching her to communicate with you nonverbally right back.

Just like body language, you’re teaching Baby to speak every time you talk to her. If you want to, though, you can encourage your toddler to communicate what she wants from you in a more active way every now and then, especially if she is a little reluctant to communicate. You can do this by encouraging Baby to ask for what she wants, either verbally or using nonverbal cues, by putting objects just a little bit out of her reach.

This can feel kind of, well, mean, but as long as it’s just something you do every now and then, not maliciously, and not to frustrate her, but just enough to make her feel the need to express what she wants, it isn’t going to do any harm. You can also “forget” parts of Baby’s routine, when you’re feeding her breakfast, or getting her ready for bed, so that she can notice and catch you, and let you know what you’ve “forgotten.”

  • Rachel Cortese. “Helping Toddlers Expand Language Skills.” Child Mind. Child Mind Institute. Web.
  • Kate Kelly. “At A Glance: Helping Your Child Understand Body Language.” Understood. Understood.Org. Web.
  • “Reading baby body language.” Raising Children. Raising Children Network, November 16 2015. Web.
  • “Understanding Your Child’s Development: Reading Your Child’s Cues From Birth to Age 2.” The Center for Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, Vanderbilt University. Web.
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