We all have habits that we probably hope our children won’t imitate–eating ice cream out of the carton, scrolling social media late into the night. But when it comes to your baby’s development, the skill of imitation plays a big part in their language growth.
In fact, there are four types of imitation that kiddos must learn to set themselves up for successful language development. And as their caregiver, you’re in the perfect position to help them do just that. Here’s how.
What is imitation, and why is it important?
Imitation is when a person copies or repeats gestures, actions, sounds, or words.
Many people think that imitation skills don’t appear until after a child begins saying words–but that’s not true! It happens much earlier, and in a variety of ways.
Before they can speak, babies begin to copy what they see and hear. They start by imitating your gestures and movements, and over time this progresses to sounds and words. When you copy them, they copy you. And vice versa. It’s a two-way street!
One of the reasons imitation is so important is because it teaches your baby the back-and-forth of communication, which is a stepping stone to early conversational skills.
I talk, then you talk. You talk, then I talk. And so on. When a child is learning language, it’s not just how many words they hear; the two-way interaction is important, too. That’s why you should make imitation practice with your child consistent and habitual.
Research shows that the more often a parent participates in this type of back-and-forth exchange with their child, the stronger the response in the language parts of the baby’s brain. It’s a core part of their language growth, and it helps set the foundation for social skills, cognitive development, and more.
So how can you start teaching imitation to your baby? Remember, there are four main kinds of imitation. They often follow a sequential order, with babies mastering one skill before moving on to the next:
1 Gesture imitation
2 Play-action imitation
3 Verbal imitation
4 Word imitation
Let’s dive deeper into each one and discuss ways you can start practicing with your child today!
Gesture imitation is the first form of communication that babies learn. This is when a baby copies a gesture from a parent or caregiver–perhaps clapping their hands, waving goodbye, raising their arms up, or shaking their head back and forth. This type of imitation is a prerequisite for talking.
Most babies are ready to imitate gestures around 7 to 8 months of age. So get down to your child’s level and start playing! Try some different movements and see what motivates them to imitate. Here are some ideas:
Cheer and clap excitedly for your child the next time they accomplish a task. They may respond by clapping right after you!
When telling your baby hello or goodbye, wave repeatedly to prompt them to wave back.
When listening to music, raise your arms high in the sky and see if your child mimics you.
Blow kisses to your baby. Pause and give them a chance to try to blow one back!
As your baby gets a little older, using signs is another great way to teach imitation skills–as well as to help them communicate before they can talk! You can teach your child signs for functional words such as:
There is a lot of value in helping your baby learn signs and gestures apart from the skill of imitation. For demonstrations on how to make the signs above, check out this video or these animations. You can also follow along and read through this list.
Read more about gestures and signs here.
The type of imitation that follows gestures is typically play-action imitation. Play is a huge area of a child’s speech and language development. So how do we teach children to play? They start by imitating your play!
One fun way to do this is by singing songs to your baby that require hand motions. Think tried-and-true favorites, such as:
“The Itsy Bitsy Spider”
“The Wheels on the Bus”
“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”
“Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”
To try this out, sit face to face with your child, and simply begin to sing and make the hand motions. Make sure your baby is looking at you and paying attention. You can take your baby’s hands and help guide them through the motions themselves.
It will likely take some practice before they begin copying you and doing the hand motions independently. So spend some time singing every day!
Another play-action imitation technique is encouraging your child to copy what you do with their toys. The best toy to use is the one your child already loves. We want to follow their lead and use what sparks their interest.
If your child is playing with a toy car, take another toy car and show them how to push it along the floor. If they’re loving blocks, show them how to build a tower! It doesn’t matter what toy you pick as long as it’s something that motivates your child to copy these play actions. Just like hand-motion songs, you may need to take your baby’s hands and help them play with the toy at first.
These imitation concepts may seem easy to us, but they’re brand-new to your child, so be patient. Over time, you’ll likely notice that they need less help and, before long, they’ll be playing with toys right alongside you!
Once your baby is imitating gestures and actions in play consistently, they’re ready to start targeting verbal imitation.
Now, big disclaimer here: This does not mean you have to wait until this point to begin modeling different sounds for your baby. Babies are simply more likely to begin imitating verbalizations after they have mastered nonverbal imitation, like gestures and play actions.
When beginning verbal imitation, it’s best to start with nonspeech sounds. These can be animal sounds, like the sound of a dog (“ruff ruff”) or pig (“oink oink”). They can also be environmental sounds–things you hear throughout your daily life, like the sound of a car (“vroooom”), train (“choo choo”), or the telephone (“ring ring”). Any sounds your child hears in their environment are fair game.
These types of sounds are really fun for little ones to listen to and eventually imitate. As you practice, make it as engaging as possible by using toys or activities that naturally promote the use of these sounds. For example, if you’re playing with a toy barn and have various toy animals, make the sound for each animal one by one. Make sure to give your child the chance to try to copy the sounds themselves.
Soon, you’ll want to add speech sounds to promote early speech imitation. Around 6 months of age, you may begin hearing your child use some occasional consonant sounds, like
If you hear your child make one of these sounds, make it right back to them! You can even show them how to babble a longer string of consonants. If they say “ba,” you can respond with “bababa” or “dadada.” Make sure they’re watching your mouth as you model the babbles for them. This helps your baby learn the necessary oral-motor movements needed for each sound.
All this imitation practice–gestures, play actions, nonspeech sounds, and speech sounds–ultimately sets the stage for word imitation! After all, our goal is to give your child the necessary foundational skills so they can begin imitating real words.
Word imitation is most likely to happen closer to your kiddo’s first birthday. For some children it’s a little before, for others it’s a little after.
When helping your child imitate words, start simple–words like “Hi,” “More,” or “Bye bye!” And of course, try for words like “Mama,” “Dada,” or whatever name your child calls you. I know you’ve waited a long time to hear your little one say your name. Now is the time to practice!
Select activities that will be motivating and engaging for your little one when practicing word imitation. If your child really loves the swing and it’s the best way to get their full attention, use it to your advantage! When swinging, model words like, “More!” “Swing!” or “Go!”
If your child loves to play with bubbles, you can practice words like “Pop,” “Bubbles,” or “Wow!”
Repetition is key to language learning. So keep modeling! Many children will need to hear the word presented several times, and over the course of many days or even months, before they start imitating it.
Word imitation is a big step in speech and language development. And it may take your child some time before they begin imitating words. That’s normal! At the same time, if you feel your child isn’t imitating words as much as they should be, consider taking a step back and revisiting verbal imitation. Remember, language learning is like a ladder, and your child needs to master one skill before going on to the next. Speech and language development is a marathon–not a sprint.
So be sure to spend enough time at each level until your child is ready for the next expected skill. And since a big part of practice involves singing, playing, and just being silly with your little one, hopefully you’ll have some fun with it, too!