You can tell your baby is frustrated. But what do they want? A bottle, a diaper change, world peace? You probably often wish you could solve this mystery. But it’s not easy to do when your baby can’t yet talk.
That’s where baby sign language comes in. When you teach your baby how to use signs, you’re teaching them to communicate. That can help you understand what they need—and hopefully cut down on their frustration.
As a speech-language pathologist, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of teaching baby signs—and not just in the moment. In fact, research has shown that a baby’s ability to use gestures is one of the stronger predictors of later language success. Studies also show that children who use more gestures early on will develop larger expressive vocabularies as they age.
The best part? Teaching baby signs is easy! Here’s how and when to do it, along with 10 essential signs to get you going.
What is baby sign language?
Baby signs are simple gestures that help children communicate their needs nonverbally, before they begin saying meaningful words. Baby sign language is a modification of American Sign Language (ASL), with signs that have been simplified for use by babies and toddlers. The goal isn’t for your child to become fluent in ASL, but to express themselves through gestures while also learning the associated words.
What are the benefits of baby sign language?
Trying to figure out what a frustrated baby or toddler wants is no fun. Baby sign language offers several benefits:
Makes it easier to interpret your baby’s desires, which leads to a happier baby (and caregiver!)
Increases your bond with your child by making you more responsive to their needs
Encourages infant communication and independence
Can teaching baby signs cause delayed speech?
Some parents and caregivers are hesitant to teach their baby signs because they fear it could delay their use of speech. After all, if gestures work, why bother to learn words?
This may be a common misperception, but it’s not based in fact or supported by research. Baby signs simply allow children to express themselves when words aren’t yet available to them. In fact, teaching a baby signs along with words helps promote their language growth.
Remember, signs are just one of many forms of nonverbal communication your child already uses. Facial expressions, pointing, crying–they’re all nonverbal communication. This type of communication is an important part of your child’s growth and development. It lays the foundation for speech production.
The key thing is to model both gestures and words when introducing baby signs. Keep reading to learn how.
When should I start teaching my baby signs?
You can start teaching signs as soon as your baby is born. However, most babies won’t be able to start using signs independently until they’re at least 6 months old.
How do I teach my baby to use signs?
Start with the basics. Focus on functional words related to your child’s needs, like “eat” and “go,” rather than words for colors or animals. Remember, the goal isn’t for your child to become a sign language expert. It’s to express their basic wants and needs.
When teaching signs to your child, provide a clear demonstration. Make the gesture while saying the word. Then encourage your child to imitate you.
Let’s use an example related to a favorite activity: eating! Pretend it’s almost lunchtime and you know your baby is hungry. In fact, they’ve begun crying to communicate that very fact. Let’s give them a simple sign to use instead. Here’s how:
As your child is fussing, show them their lunch.
Model a sign like “eat,” saying the word at the same time.
Prompt your child to imitate the sign, or guide their hands to help them make it.
Then give them their lunch.
Top 10 baby signs to teach your child
1. All done
Clench both hands into fists, then turn them outward, extending your fingers.
Hold your hand up to your mouth as if sipping from a cup.
Squeeze the tips of your fingers together to form a point, then put your fingers in front of your lips. Move your hand away from your mouth, then back to it.
Hold your two pointer fingers pointing up, then point them forward.
Hold one hand out with the palm up. Make a fist with your other hand, thumb pointing up. Place it on top of your open palm, then raise your palm up a bit.
Make your hand into a “C” shape, with your palm facing your body. Place your hand near your neck and move it down toward your stomach.
This sign looks a bit like milking a cow. Make your hand into a fist, relax it, then repeat.
Squeeze together the tips of your fingers on each hand. Touch the tips of your fingers on each hand together, then separate. Repeat a few times.
Place your palm on your chest, then rub in a circle.
Extend your three middle fingers while holding your thumb and pinkie finger together. Then tap your index finger on your chin a few times.
Tips for success with baby sign language
When your child uses a sign or a gesture, make sure to respond! If they point to their toy box, pull out a toy. If they sign that they’re all done, take them out of the high chair.
This positive reinforcement goes a long way. When you reward your child for their efforts, you’re contributing to their communication growth. Your child sees the connection between signing and getting what they want. As a result, they’re more motivated to keep communicating.
As a speech-language pathologist, I want you to feel confident that you can help your child communicate through signs and gestures. Remember, your child’s first word doesn’t have to be the only milestone you anticipate. The first gestures are just as much communication as speech, and they can feel just as magical to witness. Be proud of your little one when they accomplish this. And give yourself a pat on the back, too!