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."

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 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.
  • 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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Silent Language

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This week, after waiting out a terrible hail storm in our van, the kids and I were tired, hungry and weary of being cooped up. We made an impromptu stop at a diner style restaurant and ordered whole wheat grilled cheese. Our dinner together was very calm, relaxed and enjoyable. But I started getting funny glaces as I signed: Jonathan, would you like “more” “crackers?” Say “thank you” “Mama.” I wondered if the people in the surrounding booths were thinking that one or both of my kids were hearing impaired, or if they were just amazed, as I am, that my 13 month kiddos can communicate via sign language.

My fascination with baby sign language began when my sister-in-law taught my niece to sign. It was amazing! The only problem was, the rest of us had NO IDEA what she was saying! So without Tonya to interpret, we were clueless about what Natalie was talking about!

 Signing seemed like a good idea, a possible way to cut down on tantrums and communication frustrations.  Plus it was something I thought I could teach the kids for fun, without getting caught up in the whole “baby genius” thing. I am leery of anything that puts unrealistic expectations on babies, but signing seemed like more fun than work. I borrowed my niece’s signing video’s and started trying to watch them with the kids around the age of 9 months. Their attention span was about 30 seconds, so I ended up watching the video by myself. I learned several signs, and practiced them with the kids often.  We tried the video again at 10 months with slightly more success. Faith was entranced for about 5 minutes, and Jonathan could have cared less.  At 10 1/2 months, Faith signed “more” for the first time. Jonathan didn’t start signing until after their first birthday.  At the time, I thought he was never going to sign, that it just wasn’t his thing. And then, one day, he signed “more” like he had always been doing it. “Dog” and “eat” quickly followed suit.

At 13 months of age, we are all on the signing bandwagon. The kids grandparents think it is cool, as do the aunts and uncles. My normally stoic husband cheers when the kids use a new sign. The kids themselves are so proud when they clearly communicate something to us by sign.

The other day, I did have a moment where I regretted teaching the kids sign language… I was quickly trying to get dinner ready, and Jonathan and Faith were standing at the gate, upset. Faith pounded on the gate, and when I turned to look at her, she frantically signed “EAT! EAT! EAT!” I said “Sweetheart, I know you are hungry. Mom is fixing dinner as fast as I can! “EAT! EAT! EAT!” More banging. I don’t think I have ever cooked with that much pressure before!

The key to our signing fun, has been for me and my husband to learn the signs and use them in normal conversation. We don’t have lesson time, but when the neighbor’s dog barks, we all four turn to eachother and sign “Dog.” The words that I have found easy to integrate into normal conversation are: Eat, More, Milk, Drink, All Done, Mama, Daddy, Dog, Cat, Car, Up, Down, Please, Thank You, No, Share, Baby, Sleep, Crackers and Hat.

Another helpful tool has been the flashcard pack Sign Language for Babies by Parents Magazine which you can buy here:

I keep this pack on my coffee table and practice my words while watching Jon and Kate Plus 8! The flashcards are also great for our babysitters to refrence, so they know what the kids are saying.

The last point I would like to make, is about baby signing vs. American Sign Language. The signs we teach our kids are a combo, but if you have a choice, I would go for a tool/book/product that is based on ASL. What we teach ourselves and our kids may come in handy someday! I know the little bit of spanish I learned in 2nd grade has stuck with me, but the three years I took in high school are long gone!

What are your thoughts on baby signing?


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