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Baby Sign Language To Communicate With Baby

Updated on May 25, 2010

Baby Signs

Baby Signs: Baby Sign language is a fun, rewarding way to communicate with your baby before she or he can speak.

Years ago before my daughter was born I used to work as a lead teacher in the infant room of a daycare. I had over 10 infants over the course of a year and a few months (4 max at a time). The teacher who I was replacing introduced me to the idea of teaching the baby sign language as a way of communicating with them. I had heard of the concept but didn't have any experience with it. She taught me some baby signs and I had good practice with 3 of the infants that were just about to go to the toddler room who already were well versed in their signs and were very good at showing with their hands what they wanted.

Even after those babies moved on I continued with the next group. It was such a beneficial experience and I later used baby sign language with my own daughter while she was young.

Baby Signs is not meant for just infants that are deaf or have people in their life that are deaf. Baby Signs are meant for all babies as a form of communication until actual verbal speech develops.

A baby communicating with sign language is not a new concept. Babies have always made signs for things. When your baby waves hello or goodbye, claps his or her hands, nods or moves head back and forth for yes or no, or even pointing at something it wants is his or her way of getting the child's needs across. The concept of "Baby Sign Language" is a bit newer.

Baby Sign language is any form of purposeful hand communication that a baby and his/her parents or caregivers can do to "talk" to each other. There are books and websites dedicated too just this. Unlike ASL also know as American Sign Language, Baby sign language does not have to be all universal signs. Most signs are based on ASL, but many parents and caregivers make them their own by improvising into something the child understands and can do easily. Parents sometimes create entirely different signs then what the ASL sign is. Sometimes a baby will even create signs on their own.

One child I shared signs with understood and could mimic back about 4 or 5 signs at the time. He had yet to do our sign for bottle though. I was in the process of weaning him from his bottle around 12 months so that he could be moved into the toddler room. I said to my director while holding him "I don't want J.M. to know I'm feeding the others...." I then did our sign for bottle. He immediately said BaBa out loud and I was stuck. It did show that even though he had yet to do the sign, he definitely understood it.

How It Works

You can start babies on signs as soon as you want. It differs when they will be able to understand, usually between 7-10 months. Many parents such as myself start when the baby is between 3 to 6 months, not as a way to teach baby to speak but to get the parent familiar with signing while speaking, and the child familiar with the parent doing hand motions when speaking. It has been my experience that most babies don't repeat signs until they are between 8 to 12 months.

You can really do any sign you want. Just always say the word with it. Before feeding do and say the sign for eat, in between bites the sign for more, before giving a toy they want the sign for please and or toy, and then ask for the sign thank you. I had pictures of real animals the babies just loved posted in our room. We practiced their favorites.

Continuous use by the adult and constant positive reinforcement is really important. If the child wants a toy and they are doing the sign for "please" completely on their own, let them have what they want and praise them on saying please. This does sometime mean giving in to them sometimes. If it is something they want but you don't want them to have, praise them for saying please but explain in simple terms why they can't have it. Negative reinforcement does not work. If you offer something but ask for them to say please and they don't, just ignore it and try next time. If you insist they say "more" before the next bite, it will have the same effect. Insisting they have to do it makes their "game of talking" less enjoyable and can have bad results.

I had a girl who understood many of our signs but didn't do hardly any on her own. One day while looking through a book with real animals in it there was a picture of a bird on a branch. It was not flying but she quickly raised one hand in the air and started opening and closing it. I got excited realizing what she had just done. It was the first sign one of my babies had made on their own. I showed her one of the pictures on our walls of a bird, she did the same. This is not the sign for bird but one she had made up. I told her dad about it and he said she had just started doing it for birds and airplanes. Because I didn't want to confuse the other children by doing one sign for one baby and another for someone else we just adopted this as our classroom sign for bird. I shared this with the other parents so they wouldn't get confused.

Why It Works

Speech and hand coordination develop at different times in babies. They want so badly to communicate but have yet to figure out how to get the words out. They have however figured out how to mimic body language and understand with repeated positive reinforcement, what it means.

Depending on individual development, around 6 months many babies can start to grasp what you are doing. To them it's "every time she says MORE, she does this." They learn it as communication sort of the same way they learn that certain words go for certain objects.

Baby Signs In Action

How To Start

You can start anytime you want. Starting before your baby is 5 months may not get fast results because they may not be ready to sign back. It will however teach them that you are doing things with your hands that relate to the words coming out of your mouth. Doing it this early will also get you in the habit of doing signs regularly.

I have listed so recommended resources. It is helpful to see pictures of the signs and you can feel confident you're doing it right. To start find a book or go to a webpage dedicated to Baby Signs.

The books:

Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, New Edition is a good starting point. It is compliled mostly research on baby signing and success stories. It's an interesting read and does have a few pages dedicated to signs that babies like in the back of the book.

Animal Signs: A First Book of Sign Language has large close up pictures of animals and it has a small box showing how to do the sign. The pictures are great to work with but you'll get a better idea about how to do the sign with the link to ASL signs below.

There are some great websites you can find by doing a search on google and are just 2 sites completely dedicated to baby signs.

Two sites I have found so beneficial because it lists so many ASL signs is

Not only does it have hundreds of signs but it also has an actual short clip of a hand doing the sign. Most of my signs have come from here. is another good site that has a QuickTime clip of a woman doing the signs. It also has brief descriptions of how to do the sign. There are some here that the other site doesn't have.

Whenever your ready and you feel baby is ready begin introducing just 1 or 2 signs the first week. MORE and EAT can both be associated with meal time when most babies will give you almost their complete attention. These two are what I always started. They are waiting for that next bite and their sight is directly on you and their food. Expect them not to return the sign until they are at least 8 or 9 months and for at least 3 weeks sometimes over a month after starting. Some babies don't start signing till over a year old. It really just depends on the baby. They do understand that you're trying to communicate. Don't wait for them to sign back before adding more signs.

After being in the habit of the first 2, start adding a couple more every week until you are constantly signing a word for many of the actions you are doing. You may be totally surprised what their first sign is. It could be one you do all the time or one you don't do on a regular basis. All babies, like adults are different in what interests them. You could try for weeks with daily signs like more, eat, diaper, or bottle. Then out of no where they start doing a sign for an animal, book, or toy you've only just introduced in the past week or so.

Always, even after they have a sign down pat, say the word associated with the sign. Same as when they sign on their own. If they sign book, reply "Oh you want to read a book" This helps them remember the words that go with what they want as well.

Babies can also put short sentences together. I had two babies that were awesome at signs. One could tell me what she wanted and loved doing the sign please afterward. "Eat please, more please, bottle please." Another girl would do "more eat" all the time instead of just more at our mealtimes. Not all babies can do this but don't be surprised if yours does.

Also, don't be surprised if they recognize cartoon objects. You'd be amazed how much they really know what drawn objects are. Books with illustrated pictures are a good way to encourage this.

What you use depends on what your daily routine is and what your baby likes. These are the ones that we used the most. The babies with pets recognized and responded with the sign for their animal more than others. It's all in preference and what the child is exposed to.

Encouraging other Caregivers

Some parents of the babies in my class had already had it in their mind that they wanted to sign. Others had no idea what Baby Signs was until I explained it and told them I would be teaching them to their child. All were excited that I was doing them so regularly in class. The parents and I worked together telling each other what we were working on and sharing any that their child had just figured out how to do themselves.

Do the same with your child's daycare teacher, babysitter, or other family and friends. Encourage them to do it. Some people think it is a silly concept but change their minds when the child signs something they understand or the child gets frustrated with them because they want to share something and the adult has no idea what their talking about.

Moving On To Verbal Speech

When the babies reached about 15 months it was time to let go and move them up to the toddler room. I worked closely with the toddler teachers being that they were only a door away and many times we left it open with just the safety gate separating us. They knew many of our signs and continued them until the child could say the words.

Some believe that if they teach their children sign language it will inhibit speech. It's absolutely the complete opposite. The research I've read and my own personal experience shows it actually helps them learn to talk. They know the word because you have constantly repeated it every time they or you do the sign. They make the association with the object or action quicker. It is common for the signs to disappear as the baby learns to say the word.

Getting Discouraged... Keep At It.

I have yet to find a baby old enough who can not do it. Not all of my babies were with me when they reach the age that many start sharing signs but all who did could do at least a few signs on a regular basis. It does take time. Some babies pick it up quickly, some, like the girl who did the bird sign, are a bit slower. It can literally take months for a baby to sign back if you start young, and sometimes just as long even if they are the age most babies are ready to sign back. Keep at it. It does work.

When your baby finally does start signing, everyday tasks really do become easier. If your baby is fussy he can tell you if he is hungry for food or a bottle and which one, or wants a certain toy, wants to read, would like a bath. He can see a dog, yours or outside and become so excited because not only does he know what that is but he can tell you and know you understand what he's saying. Once he or she realizes that you understand him and that his signing is bring happy recourse, the signs will start to flood in and they will likely start signing more and more and learning new signs quickly.

I originally wrote this article in early 2005. Feeling that it would have a better place here, I have moved it from it's original location. --Stephanie Dow


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    • Moneylady profile image


      9 years ago from Texas

      Amazing ... I just sent this to my son to learn for their new baby. Thanks! Great info.

    • mannersplease profile image


      9 years ago

      Just Don't respond to the whining! And put in some effort to learn his signs and the variations he makes on the 'right' signs!

    • mannersplease profile image


      9 years ago

      I really liked using baby signs with my first child but should have started sooner! With our second child I started right at 3 months and she is signing on her own for milk she can understand many other signs.

      Very, very helpful to lower the frustration and whining. If you find your baby or toddler is whining and you want that to stop.... sign with them and ONLY RESPOND when they use APPROPRIATE communication! Before you know it you will not have any more whining! At 14 months I never had any more whining from my first child as soon as I did this.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      The exact opposite is being exhibited in my 2 year old nephew. He sees no reason to talk when he can look off in another direction when Im asking him a question and just throws signs at me which I do not understand.

      Neither of us are deaf, but this brand of communication was encouraged by his daycare.

      The bottom line is he now refuses to even try to speak, with the exception of the usual infant whining noises when he wants something. At two yrs of age, I find he is behind where he should be, because of this method being taught.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      This is a great write-up. I remember something similar to this in the Meet the Parents movie!

    • johnr54 profile image

      Joanie Ruppel 

      10 years ago from Texas

      We started a little late with our youngest doing this and it's surprising how quickly they can pick up on many of the basic signs. It really does work.

    • RainbowRecognizer profile image


      11 years ago from Midwest

      Very informative! I absolutely love using ASL with my babies and children. It so helps ease the gap between intuition and the physical/verbal signals my children are giving me. Nice to see this here. :o)

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 

      11 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      i do childcare and have used this method many times. it is difficult for me when the parents won't take part in it. But the babies and i understand each other.

      Good Job my dear G-Ma :O)


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