The Basics (and Benefits) of Baby Sign Language
As a parent, it can be super-frustrating when baby is wailing and you have no idea why. Is he hungry? Tired? Too hot? Packing a dirty diaper? It’s probably just as irritating for baby, who can get red-faced and teary-eyed when his message just isn’t getting across. You could simply wait it out until baby starts learning to speak, but the reality is you could be waiting seven months to a year just to hear a word or two. The good news? There’s a way you can start communicating with baby at an earlier age. It’s called baby sign language, and it could provide the tools you’ve been looking for to avoid frustration and keep the parent-baby bonding going strong.
Baby sign language is a set of simple hand gestures and movements, otherwise known as signs, that correspond to common words you use with baby every day. It’s a helpful tool to enhance communication between hearing parents and babies who can hear but can’t yet talk.
Baby sign can use the exact same gestures as those used in American Sign Language, but not always. “Baby sign is not a technical sign language, such as ASL or BSL (British sign language), which are primarily used by the deaf community and are more complex, with grammar and sentence structure,” says Jann Fujimoto, CCC-SLP, a certified speech-language pathologist in Wisconsin. “It’s a looser version that that uses just signs for individual words.”
Academics began making powerful observations about how hearing families could benefit from using baby sign language around 200 years ago, thanks to the work of linguist William Dwight Whitney in the 1800s. But it wasn’t until the 2000s that baby sign language became readily available to parents through workshops, classes and books.
Baby sign language is thought to offer a bunch of potential short-term and lasting benefits. Being able to understand what your preverbal baby wants or needs—and allowing baby to express himself without the use of words—can go a long way in clearing up confusion, cutting down on aggravation and bringing you even closer to your child.
Some of the possible benefits of baby sign language are:
- Increases baby’s ability to communicate before she can speak
- Leads to fewer baby tantrums, since baby can get her message across
- Lowers frustration for parents, since you can understand what baby wants or needs
- Gives baby a head start in language acquisition
- Strengthens baby’s cognitive skills
- Enhances parent-baby bonding
Back in the late 1980s, Linda Acredolo, a University of California, Davis professor, and Susan Goodwyn, a professor at University of Southern California, Stanislaus, found that babies who used baby sign language actually learned verbal skills faster than those who didn’t sign. In a second study, they later checked in on those same children at age 8 and found that the babies who used sign scored higher on IQ tests than the non-signers.
Shira Fogel, a speech pathologist who founded Tiny Talkers, a baby sign language workshop program in Portland, Oregon, first became a believer in the benefits of sign language for babies after witnessing her first child’s remarkable progress. Her daughter made her first sign (milk) at 5.5 months, knew more than 100 signs at 12 months and could speak in full sentences by the time she was 18 months old. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics believes baby sign language can help bridge the communication gap and has given it its stamp of approval.
It’s worth noting, though, that not all academics agree that baby sign language offers proven benefits. While some studies (like the ones conducted by Acredolo and Goodwyn) have found significant upsides to using sign language for babies, other studies haven’t unearthed any significant or long-term differences between children who learn baby sign language and those who don’t. So in general, the benefits of baby sign are considered theoretical.
And, as associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and advisor to The Goddard School Jack Maypole, MD, points out, some benefits of baby sign language may be overstated and overpromised by the vast offerings of baby sign products on the market. “While learning baby sign language may help hearing parents and children communicate better, the results won’t necessarily be transformative, so be wary of programs that promise to get your child into Harvard or have their first novel published by nursery school,” Maypole says.
So you’ve brushed up on the possible benefits of sign language for babies—but what about potential downsides? Since baby can begin to communicate using signs instead of spoken words, many parents wonder—does baby sign language delay speech? Fujimoto says no. If baby is developing at a healthy pace, baby sign just supplements his learning and gives him another way to express himself. If you think baby might actually have a hearing impairment, don’t just rely on baby sign language as a solution, she adds. Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns and ask about referrals to an audiologist, who can perform the proper hearing tests and assessments.
So when can babies learn sign language? Four to 6 months of age would be a good time to start. “But don’t expect your baby to actually imitate the signs back until she’s about 6 to 9 months old,” Fujimoto says. Just like learning a foreign language, a preverbal baby is going to understand more than she can speak—or in this case, sign—at first.
Since sign language for babies is more informal than ASL and other technical languages, there are a lot of different techniques out there for teaching baby signs. But generally, you can start by saying a word, such as “milk,” while making the sign at the same time, and then giving baby the item (in this case the milk). But patience is critical when developing any new skill with baby. “Don’t hold out the item as a prize and refuse to hand it over until your child makes the sign himself,” Fujimoto says. It’s more about the repetition of showing, signing and giving so over time, baby can start to make the connections. “Verbal reinforcement—by saying the word while also showing the sign—as well as consistency are key,” Fujimoto says. So whether you’re teaching signs at mealtime or bath time, using the signs every day at the same times will be more effective than just doing some hand motions once in a while.
There are a bunch of workshops, videos, books and apps available these days, all designed to help you teach sign language for babies. A typical class or workshop may teach parents 30 to 50 different signs you can then use with baby at your own pace. “Some families with older babies may learn best by singing along with a video, or attending a class together,” Fujimoto says. “Families should find the method that makes sense for them.”
In terms of which signs to teach baby first, select words you and your family use all the time in your day-to-day (think: names of food and simple questions). Some baby sign language basics? Words and phrases like “please,” “more,” “milk,” “all done,” “play,” “thank you,” “sleep” and “sorry” all make for great first signs, Fujimoto says.
Read on to learn how to use—and teach baby to use—these common words in baby sign language:
• Baby sign language: Food. The “food” sign (also the sign for “eat”) is done by flattening your fingers on top of your thumb and then bringing your fingertips to your mouth.
• Baby sign language: Hungry. Make the sign for “hungry” by cupping your hand around your neck to make a C shape, then move your hand down from your neck to your stomach.
• Baby sign language: Drink. To sign “drink,” make a C shape with your hand, as if you were holding a cup, then move it to your mouth as if you were drinking from it.
• Baby sign language: Milk. To sign “milk,” make two fists, then extend your fingers and bring them back into fists.
• Baby sign language: Water. The sign for “water” is made by spreading out the three middle fingers on one hand and then tapping your index finger on your chin.
• Baby sign language: More. Make the sign for “more” by pinching your thumbs and fingers together, creating two O shapes, then tap your fingertips together a few times.
• Baby sign language: Sleep. The “sleep” sign is done by holding your hand over your forehead with your fingers spread apart, then drawing your hand down over your face until your fingers and thumb come together to touch your chin.
• Baby sign language: Please. To sign “please,” extend your fingers and thumb out, then rub your flatten your palm against your chest in circles.
• Baby sign language: Play. To sign “play,” clench your fingers to your palms, leaving your thumbs and pinkies extended, then with palms facing you, twist your wrists back and forth.
• Baby sign language: Thank You. To sign “thank you,” straighten your thumb and fingers, then bring your fingers to your chin and bend them away, with your palm facing up.
• Baby sign language: Sorry. The sign for “sorry” is made by rubbing a fisted hand in a circle over your chest.
• Baby sign language: All done. You can sign “all done” by using the ASL sign for “finished.” Start with your hands up, palms facing in, and turn them until your palms face out.
Watch our Baby Sign Language video to learn key signs:
Published June 2017
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