A guide to baby sign language

Updated Jan 23, 2023
A guide to baby sign language

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

When do I start baby sign language?

Benefits of baby sign language

7 more signs to teach your baby

Baby sign language FAQ 


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 [1] and incorporate them into your daily activities. Here are six tips to get started.

Pick signs for words that you frequently use and are easy to remember. For example, it’s common to start with signs related to food. Try milk [2], more [3], and all done [4]. 

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.

Repetition is essential. Try to use the sign every time you say the word throughout the day for the best results. 

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.

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.

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?

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. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests starting around 6 months old [5]. 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.

Despite widespread claims that baby sign language enhances spoken language development, there’s not much evidence [6] 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:

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.

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. 

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 [7] 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.

Researchers [8] 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. 

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:

  • Bed [9] or sleep [10]— Use these signs during your bedtime routine and eventually your little one will be able to tell you when they’re tired without any tears.

  • Book [11] — If bedtime stories are part of your bedtime routine, adding the sign can help ensure that storytime is a strong cue that it’s time to transition from play to sleep.

  • Diaper [12] — So your child can let you know when they want a diaper change.

  • Morning [13]— Greeting your child with a cheerful “good morning!” is a good way to help distinguish between nighttime and daytime when you have an early riser

  • Eat [14] — Once your baby starts eating solids, you can use this sign to talk about meal time and add specific foods as you go.

  • Dog, cat, or other animals — If you have a pet or see animals [15] around your home or in books, adding the sign can be a fun way to focus on furry friends.

  • Help — Since the ASL sign for help [16] requires two hands, some families like to choose their own substitute gesture that can easily be made with one hand.

  • 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?

A:

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?

A:

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?

A:

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?

A:

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?

A:

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.

16 Sources

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  1. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (2021). American Sign Language. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/american-sign-language

  2. BabySignLanguage.com (2021). Milk. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/milk/

  3. BabySignLanguage.com (2021). More. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/more/

  4. BabySignLanguage.com (2021). All done. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/all-done/

  5. 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

  6. Fitzpatrick, et al. (2014). How handy are baby signs? A systematic review of the impact of gestural communication on typically developing, hearing infants under the age of 36 months. Sage Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0142723714562864

  7. 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

  8. Paul, et al. (2019). Maternal & Child Nutrition. Exploring infant signing to enhance responsive parenting: Findings from the INSIGHT study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6594880/

  9. American Sign Language University. http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/b/bed.htm

  10. Babysignlanguage.com (2021). Sleep. https://babysignlanguage.com/dictionary/sleep/

  11. South Dakota School for the Deaf (2017). Animal & Family Signs in ASL. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nx2FIJQq2Go

  12. ASL Kids (2016). Help in sign language. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziypTZ7HGR4