Sign language for babies

Sign Language for Babies: A Parent’s Guide

Sign Language for Babies: A Parent’s Guide

We’ve all been there, right? You have a cranky baby and can’t figure out what's up. It’s so frustrating, but there’s a simple tool that can help:

Sign language for babies.

There is that phase babies go through. You know the one. They aren’t newborns anymore, but can’t speak. So figuring out how to fulfill their ever-expanding list of needs can be tough for parents.

You can’t read their mind, but you might be able to start understanding them even before they say their first words. Using baby sign language can fill that communication gap so you can stress less with a happier baby.

But where do you start? Keep reading for answers to common questions and concerns from parents, plus tips on how to get started with sign language for babies ASAP.

What is Baby Sign Language?

Baby sign language is a method of pairing gestures with words to help babies learn to communicate before they can speak.

Many signs used in sign language for babies are the same as those used in American Sign Language (ASL), with some adjustments if the gestures are too complex for babies. Parents will usually use signs from ASL as the signs they teach their babies, but you can adapt it however you would like.

The purpose of sign language for babes is to be able to communicate their needs with those closest to them. So there is no reason you must follow ASL or any other recommended signs from professionals or linguists. If you would like to substitute some signs with ones that are easier for your baby, or even ones they made up themselves, you totally can.

The adaptability of sign language for babies is perfect for nervous parents who are worried about doing it “right.” There is no real right way to teach your baby sign language as long as you understand them and they understand you.

Through trial and error, you can even create your own set of gestures that maybe no one else will understand, but will help communication within your family a lot.

Is Sign Language Good for Babies?

The short answer is it might be good for them, but it certainly won’t hurt.

When looking at the research out there on sign language for babies, there isn’t a consensus on whether there are significant benefits. 

On the surface, it seems like sign language is amazing for babies. You will see articles and companies out there claiming baby sign language can do everything from encouraging babies to develop verbal communication more quickly to increase their IQ. 

While there might be some evidence that babies who learn sign language speak sooner or have higher IQ scores, that evidence is scant and potentially overblown. Plus, some studies[*] have shown no additional benefit to teaching babies sign language.

Organizations like the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) have compared[*] a lot of the studies out there, and their conclusion is the evidence of any big benefits is a bit lacking. They also caution parents from expecting a big developmental advantage for their children through learning a dozen or so signs.

Like with most things parenting, baby sign language could have benefits for your child, but it might not make much difference too. 

So some experts have decided not to encourage or discourage parents. Instead, they let parents choose for themselves without much comment either way.

It would be safe to say that parents should focus on the immediate benefit of improved communication with less crying and tantrums as the main reason to use sign language for babies. If they do end up being precocious talkers, well that’s just a bonus that may or may not be a result of the sign language.

Being able to understand your baby before their speech emerges[*] can be incredibly useful. 

Does Teaching Sign Language Delay Speech?

baby sign language

But wait, won’t encouraging non-verbal communication teach my child they don’t need to speak? 

It makes perfect sense to worry about this, and on the surface, it’s a logical fear. But no need for worry, there is no evidence that sign language delays speech. 

A 2000 study[*] compared a group of babies whose parents taught them gestures for words and a group of babies whose parents did not. The results showed “strong evidence that symbolic gesturing does not hamper verbal development and may even facilitate it.” 

The verdict on how much it can help speech is still out, but while there are experts out there who say it helps speech. There aren’t any (or none we could find) saying it hurts.

It can only help and not hinder the baby's speech. 

Can Babies Really Use Sign Language Before They Speak?

Yes! Before they can speak is the best time to teach babies sign language.

The reason a lot of parents teach their children sign language is to help communicate before speech emerges. So unless your goal is to teach them to be fluent in ASL, it makes sense to teach sign language to babies only before they can communicate verbally.

Think about it. Why would you need to teach your baby sign language once they are verbal? The only reason would be if they need to be able to communicate with ASL like if they are deaf, someone close to them is deaf, or as a parent you just want them to be able to use another language later in life.

But beyond stories from parents who use sign language for babies, there are also studies* showing babies can learn and use sign language effectively. 

Some babies will even start to make up their gestures to communicate without being taught sign language.

When to Teach Your Baby Sign Language

You could start using signs with your baby as early as you’d like, but they will probably not be able to use them until around eight months[*]. 

Babies aren’t a train and don’t develop on a schedule. Each develops at their speed, mastering skills at different times. So the age they will start using the signs to communicate does vary considerably from as young as six months up to a year or more.

Start Before Your Baby

With both of my kids, I have found it easy to “prime” them to learn sign language by starting before I plan on teaching them. 

From when they were very small, I will sign “up” when I go to pick them up, “mama” or “daddy” when I’m talking about myself or their father, and “milk” before I feed them. 

By around 5-6 months of age, they respond to the signs that I use and know what I’m signing, even if I don’t say the words verbally. So while I’m not actively trying to “teach” them yet, they’re still learning.

How to Know if Your Baby is Ready to Learn Sign Language

A good sign your baby is ready to start learning sign language is when they start babbling*. That doesn’t mean they’re saying words, but rather just starting to find their voice and making sounds that start to resemble words. 

It’s as if the switch for communication is flipped on for both verbal and nonverbal communication at the same time. As they practice using their voice to make sounds and communicate, the ability to form gestures and associate them with words is blooming as well.

Pay attention to your baby and their cues. 

How To Teach Your Baby Sign Language

Teaching your baby sign language should come pretty naturally.

Have you ever been in a noisy place and need to communicate with someone? What do you do? You usually exaggerate mouthing the word and pair it with a gesture. For example, you might point to an empty glass while mouthing “I’m going to get a drink.” 

Or when you’re in a busy restaurant, you might signal to your server that you want your check by mouthing the word “check” and pretending to write on a notepad.

That’s how teaching sign language for babies works too. At a basic level, you are pairing a gesture and word or set of words to convey meaning. It should be intuitive.

It is simple to do, but it does take consistency. 

To get started, choose signs you think you will use often with your baby, and memorize the gestures yourself. Don’t stress yourself out trying to learn dozens of words right away. Just start with a handful. YouTube has a lot of videos for learning the signs or pick up a baby sign language book for easy reference.  

Then simply start making the sign while slowly saying the word it represents. 

The key is to do this every time you use the word. Consistency is key. Some babies will start picking some up right away, but it will probably take some days, weeks, or even months for your baby to start using signs regularly. 

First Signs to Teach Baby

Which signs do you want to teach your baby first? 

The primary purpose of using sign language is to communicate. So with that goal in mind, which signs would make communicating with your baby easier?

For example, “milk” might be a key word to teach for babies who are still nursing. On the other hand, if your baby is mostly drinking from a cup, then “drink” will be more important for you. You can customize sign language to you and your baby’s needs.

Don’t overcomplicate it. Many parents find that just using a handful of signs with their babies helps communication a lot. Try these five:

  • Eat: with all fingers together and thumb touching tips of fingers move your hand to your mouth like you’re feeding yourself
  • Drink: hold your hand like there is a cup in it and mimic bringing to your mouth the tipping it back for a drink
  • Milk: open and close your hand into a fist a few times like you are milking a cow
  • More: hold both hands as you would for “eat” with fingers together and the tips touching the tip of your thumb then tap them to each other a few times
  • All done: hold hands up and face level with palms toward you then turn your palms out away from you

For a comprehensive list of signs and more comprehensive instructions for teaching them sign language for babies, check out our list of best baby sign language books!

But remember, fluency in sign language is not the goal for your baby. There isn’t a minimum amount of words you need to teach them that is set in stone. Use the concept of gestures as communication in whatever way works for you and your child.

Consider Teaching Your Baby Sign Language 

More than anything, using infant sign language provides a chance to connect with your child and grow your bond. 

One theory about why sign language for babies works so well is because it requires parents to pay close attention to their child. You have to observe them and become more attuned to their gestures, which means it will probably be easier for you to know their needs whether or not the sign language helps.

It’s cliche, but it’s true that your baby will grow so fast that in no time they’ll be talking your ear off and you’ll wonder where the time went. So don’t put any pressure on yourself or your baby. Have fun. Learn sign language for babies together, and enjoy the ride.

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