Baby's First Year · Parenting

How do babies communicate when they are too young to talk?

Toddler sitting in high chair with hand up and finger pointing

When I mention “communication”, a lot of parents think I only mean talking. But there are so many ways that you and your baby communicate that don’t involve any words at all – through gestures, body movements, touch, and facial expressions. These forms of (non-verbal) communication are important stepping stones to talking.

How your baby communicates:

When your baby…They may be telling you…
Looks up at you and reaches their arms up“Please pick me up” or “I need you”
Brings you a book“Please look at this book with me”
Tugs on your clothes“I need help” or “Come with me”
Points at a toy or object“I want to play with that toy” or “I like that toy” or “Look at that”
Turns their gaze or face away“I’m feeling shy” or “I don’t want/like this right now”
Pushes a toy or object away“I don’t want that right now”
Rests their head on your shoulder“I love you” or “I’m sleepy”
Smiles or laughs“I like that” or “This is fun”
Cries“I feel sad” or “I need something”

How to help your little communicator expand their skills:

  1. Respond to your baby’s intended message quickly: When you respond quickly to your baby’s non-verbal cues (e.g., picking them up when they reach for you), you are teaching your baby that their actions have an effect on the world. It encourages them to keep communicating and nurtures positive attachment.
  1. Say what you think your baby means: The more your baby hears the words that go with their intended message, the more likely they are to learn and use those words! For example, when your baby points to a toy car, you can model a request “do you want the car?” or make a comment “it’s a red car!”
  1. Set-up new opportunities that encourage baby’s communication: Try holding up two toys to see how your baby makes a choice. Or, give your baby a closed container with a snack or toy inside. Your baby will show you how they ask for your help!

Temper tantrums are also a form of communication:

Temper tantrums are sometimes used to express “I feel frustrated/angry” or “I’m not ready to handle something that’s happening”. Though it is best not to give into a child’s request during a tantrum, you can still use calm words to acknowledge their feelings and let them know they have been heard. You can say something like: “I hear you. You are sad. You want to stay at the park, and it is time to go inside. We will come back another time”. Your calm and reassuring voice tells your baby that their message is important to you.

If you are concerned about your child’s communication skills, don’t wait and see.

Connect with us at Early Abilities! Call 416-338-8255 or email

As of April 1, 2022 the Preschool Speech and Language, Blind-Low Vision and Infant Hearing programs have moved from Toronto Public Health (Early Abilities) to Surrey Place. To register for services or learn more about the programs, please visit Surrey Place or call 416-925-5141.

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