A guide to baby sign languageUpdated Jan 23, 2023
I’ll be honest with you - I'm incredibly passionate about baby sign language, having seen the amazing impact it had on my children's ability to communicate. It’s also just a really fun way to interact with your kiddo!
But I’m not going to tell you that you must use baby sign language to improve language skills and bonding between you and your hearing child. It’s one tool. We all have our parenting toolkits and need to fill them with what works best for our individual families. That said, using this tool daily may just make your life easier (and better!) — so, why not give it a try?
IN THIS ARTICLE:
How to teach your baby sign language
It may sound daunting, but teaching your hearing baby to use sign language can actually be pretty simple. Don’t worry! You don’t need to set aside extra time for signing. Instead, you can start by choosing a few signs in American Sign Language  and incorporate them into your daily activities. Here are six tips to get started.
Tip #1 Choose commonly used words
Example: Let’s take a look at an example with a 6 - 7 month old baby. When it’s time for breastmilk or formula you can ask your baby if they’re ready for milk while squeezing your fist at the same time you say “milk.” When your baby is in the high chair eating solids, you can pause between bites and ask them if they want “more” while bringing your fingertips together. At the end of each meal, you can be “all done” while turning your palms toward them and then back toward you.
Tip #2 Repeat, repeat, repeat
Repetition is essential. Try to use the sign every time you say the word throughout the day for the best results.
Tip #3 Accompany, not replace
Be sure to make the hand gesture as you verbally say the words. The sign is meant to accompany, not replace, the spoken word. This will help your baby link the visual gesture to the verbal sounds.
Tip #4 Add signs as you go
Add more signs to your repertoire once you get the hang of your starter signs. Remember to look for words that: (a) you’ll use frequently, (b) are easy for you to remember, and (c) are relevant to your baby’s care or interests.
Tip #5 Be patient
Patience is important, especially if you begin using sign language when your baby is young (4 - 6 months). It can be a couple of months before you see the return on your investment. Don’t be discouraged! Once your little one’s fine motor skills start to develop (around 8 - 9 months), they’ll be able to start using their hands to communicate effectively even though they’re preverbal. How amazing is that?
Tip #6 Include other caregivers
Be sure to let your child’s other caregivers know how to perform the signs. Not only will this help your kiddo learn faster, but it also helps ensure that your baby is understood when they start signing back.
When do I start baby sign language?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests starting around 6 months old . They note that you can start earlier, but you’ll likely need to wait longer to see any payoff. Hearing babies who are taught ASL signs often start using hand gestures to communicate around 8 or 9 months old.
Benefits of baby sign language
Despite widespread claims that baby sign language enhances spoken language development, there’s not much evidence  to support this, especially beyond 24 months of age. However, there are plenty of other potential benefits of teaching sign language to your hearing child. Here are some of them:
A bridge for communication
Baby sign language can empower babies and toddlers to communicate needs and wants with caregivers before they’re verbal. Plus, it's so rewarding to watch as they start to understand what you're saying and are able to express themselves in a way they couldn't before.
When caregivers have to guess what a baby needs or wants, this can lead to frustration on both sides. Parents may spend less time guessing what their kiddo is trying to tell them, which can cut down on misunderstandings, frustration, and tantrums.
More bonding opportunities
Practicing baby sign language can provide unique opportunities to tune into your child’s interests. For instance, when my son was a toddler he was fascinated by our washing machine and he regularly used sign language to convey that he wanted to visit it (and spend some time pushing the buttons on it). This would have taken much more effort and guesswork if we had only had his pointing and grunting to guide me. Sadly, his interest in laundry did not continue into the teen years.
Increased cognitive development
Can baby sign language boost brain power? Anecdotally it’s common to hear that kids who use baby sign language have larger vocabularies, along with better skills in spelling and reading. There’s also evidence to support that sign language may lead to greater IQ scores.
One study  examined the cognitive development of former baby sign language users at 8 years of age. The authors concluded that baby sign language used during infancy and toddlerhood was associated with higher intellectual functioning in the early school years.
Enhance hunger and satiety cues
Researchers  have explored using baby sign language as a tool to help parents of preverbal children understand when a child is hungry and when they’re full. This can help support lifelong healthy eating habits.
7 more signs to teach your baby
In addition to milk, more, and all done consider teaching the following signs. We're rather partial to signs that help children get ready for bedtime:
Anything else that interests your child in their environment! My son loved to stare at the ceiling fan from his crib so it wasn’t a surprise when that was his first sign.
Baby sign language FAQ
Q: Can baby sign language delay speech?
No, not as long as the caregivers continue to speak to the child as they sign. Numerous studies have explored the impact of baby sign language on language development, and no studies have reported any adverse effects on typical language development.
Q: Why use baby sign language?
Baby sign language is a fun and effective way to communicate with your baby or toddler before they are able to speak.
Q: How long does it take babies to learn sign language?
This depends on the age and fine motor skill development of your child, as well as when you started the process. Some babies reportedly sign back as early as 4 - 6 months old, but it’s more common to see babies start signing between 8 - 9 months old.
Q: What age should you start baby sign language?
You can start from birth, but your baby won’t be able to sign back until they’re older. The AAP recommends starting around 6 months old.
Q: Does baby sign language work?
Caregivers are able to teach baby sign language to preverbal hearing children by incorporating gestures (alongside the spoken words) into their everyday tasks. It can help reduce frustration by allowing children to communicate their needs before they can verbalize them, as well as improve communication and understanding between a child and their caregivers. Signing can also help promote a connection between parent and child, as it allows for an interactive and meaningful form of communication. It’s a win-win!
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (2021). American Sign Language. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/american-sign-language
BabySignLanguage.com (2021). Milk. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/milk/
BabySignLanguage.com (2021). More. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/more/
BabySignLanguage.com (2021). All done. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/all-done/
American Academy of Pediatrics (2022). Baby Sign Language: These Hands Were Made for Talking. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/Pages/These-Hands-Were-Made-for-Talking.aspx
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Goodwyn, et al. (2000). Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. https://pursuitofresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Impact-of-Symbolic-Gesturing.pdf
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American Sign Language University. http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/b/bed.htm
Babysignlanguage.com (2021). Sleep. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/sleep/
American Sign Language University. https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/b/book.htm
Signing Time (2023). Diaper. https://www.signingtime.com/dictionary/diaper/
American Sign Language University. https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/m/morning.htm
South Dakota School for the Deaf (2017). Animal & Family Signs in ASL. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nx2FIJQq2Go
ASL Kids (2016). Help in sign language. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziypTZ7HGR4