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How to Teach Baby 25 Key Words in Baby Sign Language

Just because baby isn’t talking yet doesn’t mean you can’t communicate. Here’s how to teach baby sign language using everyday baby signs.
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profile picture of Ashlee Neuman
Content Director
Updated
September 28, 2022
mother teaching toddler sign language while sitting on couch at home
Image: Amy Drucker

We all hate seeing our kids unhappy—but when baby is too young to speak, it can be hard to know exactly what your little one wants. Are they hungry? Tired? Do they need a diaper change? Plus, it’s also probably just as frustrating for baby when their message just isn’t getting across. In recent years, more and more parents have been turning to baby sign language to help boost communication with their preverbal kids. Here, learn from experts what sign language for babies is, its benefits, how to start teaching it and 25 common baby signs to know.

What Is Baby Sign Language?

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. Sometimes the baby signs are the same as those used in American Sign Language (ASL), 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 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 baby sign language books.

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Benefits of Baby Sign Language

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 themselves without the use of words—can go a long way in building your relationship. Some of the possible benefits of baby sign language are:

  • Increases baby’s ability to communicate before they can speak
  • Leads to fewer tantrums, since baby can get their 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

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 signs 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, 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 Jack Maypole, MD, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, 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.

Potential Disadvantages of Baby Sign Language

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 their learning and gives them another way to express themselves. 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.

How and When to Start Baby Sign Language

If you’ve decided to give baby sign language a go, you may be wondering when to teach baby some signs. A good time to start is when baby is 4 to 6 months old, according to Fujimoto. As for how, there are many different approaches to teaching baby sign language, but generally, you can teach baby by saying a word like “milk,” while making the sign at the same time, and then giving baby the milk. “Don’t hold out the item as a prize and refuse to hand it over until your child makes the sign himself,” Fujimoto says. “Verbal reinforcement—by saying the word while also showing the sign—as well as consistency are key.”

As part of the consistency, you’ll want to use the signs every day for baby to truly understand them. While your little one likely won’t start making signs on their own until they’re about 6 to 9 months, eventually baby will start to make connections between the word, sign and item. Just like learning a foreign language, a preverbal baby is going to understand more than they can speak—or in this case, sign—at first.

For more resources, parents can turn to the many 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.”

Common Baby Signs

When you’re ready to begin teaching baby sign language, you’ll need to decide which baby signs to start with. Fujimoto says to choose the words you and your family use the most on a day-to-day basis, like “more,” “please” and “milk.” Ready to learn how to teach baby sign language? Brush up on the below illustrations of 25 common baby signs.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Hungry” in sign language

It’s important for baby to be able to communicate when they’re tummy feels empty—you know, before they get hangry. Teach them how to show you they’re “hungry” in sign language. You can 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.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Drink” in sign language

Want to learn how to sign “drink” in sign language? This one involves mimicking the action! 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.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Milk” in sign language

Wondering how to teach baby sign language? It’s best to start with something baby knows, likes and wants—for example, milk. You can communicate the word “milk” in sign language, by making two fists, then extend your fingers and bring them back into fists.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Water” in sign language

Teach baby how to request “water” in sign language, and you’ll always know when your little one wants their sippy cup. The sign for “water” is made by extending your three middle fingers so they’re pointing up, with your thumb and pinkie tucked down, and then tapping your index finger to your chin.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“More” in sign language

Do you have trouble knowing if and when baby wants extra spoonfuls of their favorite puree? “More” is another important word for you and baby to learn. To express “more” in sign language, pinch your thumbs and fingers together on both hands, creating two O shapes, then tapping your fingertips together a few times.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Done” in sign language

When baby is full, they want you to stop shoving that spoon toward their mouth. Teach them to let you know they’re “all done” without fussing by using the ASL sign for “finished.” Start with your hands up, palms facing toward you, and turn them until your palms face out.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Play” in sign language

When it comes to baby sign language, the sign “play” certainly belongs in your arsenal. To communicate “play” in sign language, clench your fingers to your palms, leaving your thumbs and pinkies extended; then with palms facing you, twist your wrists back and forth.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Sleep” in sign language

Nobody likes having a fussy, sleep-deprived baby on their hands, so it’s a good idea to practice “sleep” in sign language. Hold your hand over your forehead with your fingers spread apart, then draw your hand down over your face until your fingers and thumb come together to touch your chin. Even babies who resist nap time may whip this one out when they’re especially exhausted.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Mom” in sign language

Your little one will want to know how to address their favorite people in baby sign language. To sign “mom,” simply spread your fingers apart, then with your pinkie facing forward, tap your thumb to your chin.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Dad” in sign language

As another one of baby’s favorite people, Dad will want in on the fun too! You can make the sign for “dad” by spreading your fingers apart, then with your pinkie facing forward, tap your thumb to your forehead.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Poop” in sign language

Everybody does it, so you might as well learn to sign it! If you want to indicate “poop” in sign language, clench both hands into fists and stack them on top of each other, with the thumb of the bottom hand tucked inside the upper fist. Then, pull your bottom hand down from the upper hand, leaving your thumb extended. Next time baby soils their diaper, they’ll let you know—before you even smell it.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Yes” in sign language

Another easy and important sign to learn is “yes.” Enthusiastically nodding your head is great, but this sign gives baby yet another communication tool. Intuitively, “yes” in sign language looks just like a nodding hand. Make a fist and then, folding at your wrist, bob your fist up and down.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“No” in sign language

Again, shaking your head works, but this sign helps reiterate the point. To express “no” in sign language, extend your thumb, index and middle fingers, then quickly snap them together.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Food” in sign language

Instead of signing “hungry,” baby may want to ask for “food.” This sign can also mean “eat.” Communicate “food” in sign language by flattening your fingers on top of your thumb and then bringing your fingertips to your mouth.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Help” in sign language

When learning and teaching baby sign language, be sure to review the sign for “help.” This can be useful to baby in so many different situations; plus, being able to ask for support from a parent or caregiver can help reduce any frustration a baby may feel. If you want to communicate “help” in sign language, simply make a fist with one hand, with the thumb extended, and place it over your other hand, which is extended flat. Then move both hands up together.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Bath” in sign language

Want to tell baby it’s bath time? Express ‘“bath” in sign language by making two fists, then moving them up and down in front of your chest (as if you were scrubbing yourself clean).

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Book” in sign language

Storytime is the best time! Use your hands to say “book” in sign language; clasp your palms together with your thumbs facing up, then hinge open your hands, keeping your pinkies together (as if you were cracking open a book).

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Medicine” in sign language

The sign for “medicine” is made by placing your middle finger into the palm of your opposite hand and twisting.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Share” in sign language

To sign “share,” extend one hand flat, with your thumb pointing up. Then, run your other hand back and forth along the top of your extended fingers.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Sorry” in sign language

Teach baby to show empathy and express feelings before they know how to do it verbally. The sign for “sorry” is made by rubbing a fisted hand in a circle over your chest.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Please” in sign language

Manners matter. Teach baby to ask for things politely from the get-go. To sign “please,” extend your fingers and thumb out, then rub your flattened palm against your chest in circles.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Thank you” in sign language

Nothing is sweeter than watching your little one express gratitude. And they’ll appreciate it when you show them the same respect and courtesy right back. To sign “thank you,” straighten your thumb and fingers, then bring your fingers to your chin and pull them away.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“You’re welcome” in sign language

The sign for “you’re welcome” is the same as the sign for “thank you”—flatten your hand, bring your fingers to your chin and pull them back.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“I love you” in sign language

This is one sign you’re going to both want to use all the time. To sign “I love you,” extend your thumb, index and pinkie fingers (but keep your ring and middle fingers down). Hold your hand out with the palm facing away and rotate your hand side to side.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

“Hurt” in sign language

The baby sign for “hurt” is done by clenching both hands into fists, then extending your index fingers and touching them together.

Baby Sign Language Chart

Here, you can see 25 of the most common signs, all in one comprehensive baby sign language chart.

Image: Kitkat Pecson

Now that you know the basics of how to teach baby sign language, begin practicing a few words you think you’ll use most frequently at home. Your little one will love having a special way to communicate their wants and needs with you. What’s more, having the ability to express your feelings to each other will help strengthen your bond. It’s a win-win!

About the experts:

Jann Fujimoto, CCC-SLP, is a certified speech-language pathologist in Wisconsin. With 17 years of experience, she has worked in birth-to-three programs, pre-schools and schools, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and outpatient clinics. She received her MS in communication disorders from the University of Texas at Dallas.

Jack Maypole, MD, is an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a pediatrician with over two decades of experience. He received his bachelor’s degree from Yale University and his medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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