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 their first words, but that doesn’t mean words are the only way their 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 their words, but recognizing and encouraging their efforts to communicate through body language, signs, and pointing, as well as through words, encourages them to keep trying new things, and boosts their confidence in their ability to make themself understood. If you understand what they are asking for when they point to their stuffed kitty, saying “You want the kitty?” and handing the toy to them and is actually a great way to encourage them to take more risks with their 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 they were younger, they started out by instinctively physically reacting to what they felt and wanted. The communication began when you, your partner, or another caregiver, noticed and interpreted what they were reacting to and responded, giving your then-infant their first understanding of the fact that they can have an effect on their environment, and the way they react with their body can have an effect on the world around them.

Their 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 they are agitated, tired, or upset, they may be more likely to fall back into communication through gestures, body language, and crying to get their 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 they 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 them, in the way your body communicates your moods to them when you talk. When you communicate with Baby nonverbally, whether you mean to or not, you’re teaching them to communicate with you nonverbally right back.

Just like body language, you’re teaching Baby to speak every time you talk to them. If you want to, though, you can encourage your toddler to communicate what they want from you in a more active way every now and then, especially if they are a little reluctant to communicate. You can do this by encouraging Baby to ask for what they want, either verbally or using nonverbal cues, by putting objects just a little bit out of their 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 them, but just enough to make them feel the need to express what they want, it isn’t going to do any harm. You can also “forget” parts of Baby’s routine, when you’re feeding them breakfast, or getting them ready for bed, so that they 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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