Mothers Talk About Infants’ Actions: How Verbs Correspond to Infants’ Real-Time Behavior

Kelsey L. West, Katelyn K. Fletcher, Karen E. Adolph, Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Infants learn nouns during object-naming events—moments when caregivers name the object of infants’ play (e.g., ball as infant holds a ball). Do caregivers also label the actions of infants’ play (e.g., roll as infant rolls a ball)? We investigated connections between mothers’ verb inputs and infants’ actions. We video-recorded 32 infant-mother dyads for 2 hr at home (13 month olds, n = 16; 18 month olds, n = 16; girls, n = 16; White, n = 23; Asian, n = 2; Black, n = 1; other, n = 1; multiple races, n = 5; Hispanic/ Latinx, n = 2). Dyads were predominantly from middle-class to upper middle-class households. We identified each manual verb (e.g., press, shake) and whole-body verb (e.g., kick, go) that mothers directed to infants. We coded whether infants displayed manual and/or whole-body actions during a 6-s window surrounding the verb (i.e., 3 s prior and 3 s after the named verb). Mothers’ verbs and infant actions were largely congruent: Whole-body verbs co-occurred with whole-body actions, and manual verbs co-occurred with manual actions. Moreover, half of mothers’ verbs corresponded precisely to infants’ concurrent action (e.g., infant pressed button as mother said, “Press the button”). In most instances, mothers commented on rather than instigated infants’ actions. Findings suggest that verb learning is embodied, such that infants’ motor actions offer powerful cues to verb meanings. Furthermore, our approach highlights the value of cross-domain research integrating infants’ developing motor and language skills to understand word learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-416
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2022


  • Dyadic interactions
  • Language input
  • Motor development
  • Verb learning
  • Word learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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