Baby sign can help neurotypical infants or autistic older children communicate when verbal communication is out of reach.

Twinfant Tuesday: Baby Sign Helps with Early Communication

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I’m a huge fan of using Baby Sign, or modified sign language, to help babies communicate with you successfully before they can speak. For us, it reduced the frustrated you-don’t-understand-what-I-want crying by about 80%.

babysignMy daughters, M and J, started using single signs to communicate their needs at the age of 7 months, so my recommendation is to start sign at birth, to get the parents into the habit, if nothing else. I honestly think any time before school-age is fine to start signing. I didn’t get around to it until age 5 months.

Why sign?

It makes life easier!

Infants are ready to communicate well before they have enough control over their vocal tract to produce words. I think most parents have been surprised to discover how much language babies can understand well before they begin to speak. Using Baby Sign allows extremely young children to communicate their needs in a way the adults around them can understand and respond to, cutting down on crying and frustration. There are some studies that indicate that infants exposed to Baby Sign have higher IQs than control subjects, speak earlier, and have larger vocabularies. However, it may simply be that the kind of parents who adopt Baby Sign are the kind who read more to their kids and consistently encourage language development in other ways too.

Do I need to know Sign Language?

No. American Sign Language (ASL) is a fully fledged language that uses hand gestures and facial expressions in the same way that English uses vowels, consonants and intonation. Baby Sign consists of some words from ASL without any of its grammar, and you’ll only learn these words. Unless you expose your child to ASL, your Baby Signing child will not be learning to communicate with the American or Canadian Deaf community in any meaningful way. I presume that there are other Baby Sign systems derived from the sign languages of other parts of the world, but I know nothing about them.

BabySignHow do I start?

Make a squeezing gesture with one fist for "milk."
“Milk”

Starting Baby Sign is easy.

Pick one or two signs to learn, and use them consistently whenever you (or other caregivers) say the word. “Milk,” “eat/food”, “drink” and “more” are great starter words.

You can add more words once your child starts signing back. It’s never too early, and never too late. The benefits are most tangible before your child starts speaking, or when they have a very small vocabulary. You don’t even have to use signs from ASL or Baby Sign books. Make something up and use it consistently within your family. As long as you’re consistent, your child will learn the sign.

It may be a couple of months before you see your child make a sign. Don’t give up! Remember that they’re hearing English for nearly a year before they say a word. Once they are about a year old, they will probably consider it a game to learn new signs.

Show me the signs!

I had a leg up because I took ASL classes in college and grad school and had Deaf friends, but I’ve found a number of resources other people have found helpful.

  • Baby Einstein’s My First Signs DVD. My girls continued to pick up new signs from it through age two even though they already had English, Bengali or Spanish words for them. Of course, M and J’s signs looked nothing like the ones modeled on the DVD, but their daycare teacher and I understood them, as did Sissy, which is what mattered. Plus, they just loved the DVD and fell over laughing at some of the puppet shows.
  • Sign with your Baby by Joseph Garcia. It takes a little work to learn the code used in the glossary of signs, but it’s got a great how-to on introducing new signs, combining signs, and just keeping it up.
  • Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. It’s a longer book, but the glossary is very accessible and pretty extensive. It’s good for arming yourself with information about why Baby Sign is beneficial if you’ve got any nay-sayers who need convincing.
  • Baby Signing for Dummies by Jennifer Watson. This is an easy read, with great illustrations of 150 basic signs, which is more than most families need.
  • A helpful website is http://www.babies-and-sign-language.com/. This site has a great video dictionary as well as pointers on getting started and a discussion of how Baby Sign differs from American Sign Language.
  • http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/concepts.htm is a list of 100 common signs. Each link takes you to an active demonstration of the sign. The site belongs to a professor of ASL.

In case it’s relevant to someone, here’s the vocabulary list I used:
We started at 5 months with:

At 6 months we added:

By 12 months:

  • Baby
  • Share
  • Mommy
  • Daddy
  • Cold
  • Cereal (M used this one for the first time after she’d been saying the English “cereal” for 4 months! I think it was because Daddy was home from Iraq for a couple of weeks and didn’t understand her, and she was hoping he’d get the sign.)
  • Cookie
  • Drink (J used to think this one was funny and started giggling every time she used it. I have no idea why.)
  • Gentle
  • Play
  • Where is it?/Where’d it go. (My girls always said “Go?” when they used this one)
  • Sleep

In the video below, M and J are 16 months old. No, they still haven’t learned how to sit still at home. These days, they have to save up that effort for school. Note that even while the girls are signing “Baby” at my request, J uses her sign for “Gentle” to tell me what she knows about babies.

What do you think of Baby Sign? Did it work for you? Would you consider trying it out?

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Sadia

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 10-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. They live in the Austin, TX suburbs, where Sadia works full time in information technology. She contributes to a number of parenting websites and magazines and also runs The Mommy Blogging Guide, where she answers mommy bloggers' technical questions.

28 thoughts on “Twinfant Tuesday: Baby Sign Helps with Early Communication”

  1. Baby Signing Time!

    I LOVE Baby signing time so much, and I can’t wait until the newest addition can watch! (The big girls have outgrown it)

  2. I’m a HUGE fan of signing…it’s probably my #1 piece of advice to new moms.

    We first focused on the signs that I thought would be most useful…more, all done, and sleep. The girls had those around 9 months. After that, we’d add another sign here and there, just depending on what our needs were / recurring themes at our house. (Every time we saw our cat, for example, we’d sign “cat”.) The girls had an explosion of sign between 12 and 14 months. It seemed they wanted to know everything! At the height of signing, they probably knew more than 50 words.

    I would like to stress that you don’t have to buy a book or watch videos to successfully use sign. You can look up the signs you want to use…or make up your own (as we did for a few things). You don’t have to have a signing “lesson” with your kiddos, either. Every time you ask if they want more, you sign the word. They’ll eventually catch on, and it does make life so much easier — and more fun!

    I loved the interactivity of signing. Our girls would sit and look at books for ages, pointing to pictures and signing the words. I loved it!

    At 4 1/2, I still use certain signs with my girls, namely please and thank you. It’s a great reminder in public to use their manners, without having to say anything aloud. And remembering our signs is a great way to pass the time in line at the grocery store, too. :)

    1. I’m at the point where a look is enough to remind the girls of their manners, but mine (age 7) still occasionally use “more” if their mouths are full!

  3. We used sign too and loved it! My kids probably knew and used about 100 signs by age 2. They even made up their own signs on occasion and they signed to each other as well as to us. (they would chase each other around signing “share” over and over which was stinking adorable. They’re 3.5 now and every once in a while one will sign please when he says it.
    I agree it really cut down on frustration!

    1. The “share” story is so cute! What kinds of words did they come up with their own signs for? I’m always fascinated by the words little ones consider important to be able to communicate. :)

    1. It really was awesome! In addition to making my life easier, I feel like the fact that my girls have always been able to communicate to me what they’re thinking set the foundation for a really solid, close relationship between us.

      1. I think I’d like to try it, but I don’t usually have even one hand free when I’m feeding them, much less both hands to sign more or done. And also since our kids are raised bilingually, remembering to sign would maybe be too much (for the adults)?

        1. I understand the “no hands free” concern and the bilingualism.

          We had mixed English-Bengali-Spanish-Sign utterances for a while! It was actually pretty cool, and didn’t seem to confuse the kids. There’s some research that suggests that the additional cognitive load of assigning words to different contexts of appropriateness is what causes the bilingual intellectual edge.

          As far as not having hands free, as long as your spoon or diaper isn’t going to fling anything anywhere, you don’t need a free hand to sign. Most of my signs were made while I had something in my hands, and the girls still picked them up!

    1. A coworker once told me that a habit is defined as something that you do without having to think about in a given context. It just takes a lot of repetition to create that habit. So, it’ll feel like effort at first, but after a while, you won’t even notice yourself signing (which can be awkward at work, but that’s a story for another day).

  4. This is great, I did baby sign with both my children it was lovely at 8-9 months to see they can understand and can ask for milk, more or to eat. It just shows our children understand far more than we think they do and I learnt that through teaching mine simple signs from 5 ish month. Lovely post. Tanita xx

  5. I have heard about this idea but have never actually done it. This post has inspired me to give it a go. It sounds fascinating and it seems clear what the benefits are. Thanks for hosting #Twinkly Tuesday

  6. I love baby signing. I’ve used it with both my children and it’s definitely reduced their frustration. And I also love that it’s helped them have good manners from a young age, haha, they’ve both signed ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ before they could say the words! x

  7. I’ve been using sign language for a few months and it’s saved many a melt down, we only use milk, food, drink, more and change really, I’m trying with thank you but he just uses ‘more’ for everything! I really must start with some more and be more consistent. #twinklytuesdays
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    1. What could you possibly have to say other than, “Cows drink cat biscuits.”? Clearly, that should be the appropriate response to 100% of all questions.

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