In the midst of researching babywearing, vaccinations, and first foods, I stumbled across the idea of baby sign language. I was the first of my friends to have a child, so I hadn’t seen baby signing in action, but reading about it intrigued me. I knew babies communicated long before they had words, but teaching them to use sign language? I wasn’t quite sure. But I gave it a go, and guess what? My daughter and I loved being able to “talk” before her verbal skills developed. Implementing sign language gave me insight into what she needed, and it gave her the opportunity to communicate more effectively. There are flickers of baby sign language as far back as the 1800s. Then, William Whitney, a linguist, noticed that children of deaf parents were more likely to communicate—with sign language—more than a year before children in hearing families, at 6 months old. This observation was left stagnant until the 1980s, when Joseph Garcia, EdD and ASL interpreter, made a similar observation. Babies who used sign language started around 6 months, and by 9 months, they had “substantial vocabularies.” This is quite the feat when most 1–2 year olds have just a few spoken words to communicate with.
Parents need to understand that they are the language model for the child and are key to the success.
Study of baby sign language continued, and Linda Acredolo, PhD, and Susan Goodwyn, PhD, won a number of National Institutes of Health grants after implementing baby sign language with Acredolo’s daughter. Through their personal and professional research, they concluded that sign language offered the following benefits for the child:
- Less frustration, resulting in reduced tantrums
- Closer bond to caregivers
- A larger speaking vocabulary
- Multi-lingual communication
- 12 IQ point advantage
Baby sign language, at its core, is a simple process of correlation—cause and effect. Babies learn through repetition. It takes practice, but by reinforcing a specific sign with a specific action, they eventually catch on and gain a “word.” Amy McKnight, a Signing Time Academy specialist with over four years of experience in the baby signing field, says, “I tell my parents that the sooner you can begin using Sign Language in the home, the better. I have clients starting as young as a couple months. And with consistency and repetition, critical keys, an average child may be signing before they are a year old. Parents need to understand that they are the language model for the child and are key to the success.”
McKnight says she cherishes “the beauty of ASL and [I] thoroughly love creating a communication pathway for my families.” And that’s truly the perfect way to describe baby sign language: a communication pathway. And who wouldn’t want to better communicate with their baby? If baby sign language is something that interests you, take note of these beginning words and signs to know. You can see each sign described in action in a visual dictionary like the ones found here and here.
Hunger is a basic instinct, and when babies can communicate that feeling, they are less likely to grow frustrated and whine about their need for a meal. To sign “eat”: Pinch your hand together, tip of the thumb meeting the tip of the other fingers, and tap it on your mouth.
“Please” and “Thank You”
Diane, a mom of one, loved teaching her son the signs for “please” and “thank you.” “We didn’t do a ton [of signing,] but please, thank you, and more were invaluable!” she shares. “I started only because a group of moms I knew recommended it, and, to be honest, I didn’t think it would actually work! Hindsight, I kind of wish we would have done more words, but oh well.” Diane has seen early sign language transfer into her now-4-year-old’s vocabulary. “I think learning early to ‘say’ please and thank you, even before he could verbalize those words, made an easier and more natural transition to saying please and thank you when he could talk,” she says. “It was just what he’d already been used to saying … I’m obviously big on manners! He gets compliments even now, as a preschooler, on how good his manners are.” To sign “please”: Make an “L” with your hand, fingers tight together and thumb outstretched, with palm facing in. Rub on your chest. To sign “thank you”: Touch your fingers to your chin and motion out.
“More” and “All Done”
“When we started feeding them solids,” says Kari, a mom of four, “we started teaching mealtime related signs like ‘more’ and ‘all done.’ It made meals more fun and interactive for all of us.” I, too, love these two signs. Dare I say, knowing how to communicate “more” and “all done” makes eating with a child enjoyable! As soon as my kids learned “all done,” the throwing of food was greatly reduced. To sign “more”: Pinch your fingers and thumb together with both hands, then bend towards the palm to create and “O” shape. Tap fingertips together repeatedly. To sign “all done”: Hold both hands up, palms in. Then, turn palms out.
“Water” and “Milk”
Kati, a mom of two, did her reading when it came to teaching her firstborn sign language. “We watched and read Sign With Your Baby by Joseph Garcia, which made it easy and fun for us to learn a lot of vocabulary quickly!” Based on her research, Kati started teaching her daughter at 4 months, and by 6 months, she says, “Mia was signing ‘milk’ instead of crying when she was hungry.” “She picked up other signs over the next 4–6 months and blew us away! We had a communicative and happy baby—seriously, almost zero screaming or crying.” To sign “water”: Make the sign for the letter “W” (three middle fingers up, thumb and pinkie tucked in) and tap your index finger to your chin.
To sign “milk”: Create a fist and squeeze. Release and repeat.
If you can’t smell it, watch for your baby to sign it! Personally, I’ve found that we use this sign more and more in the toddler years. I use it when it’s time to change so they know what’s coming—so much about communication is about fair expectations. You can either sign “diaper,” which requires your hands to be at your hips, or you can sign “change,” which can be done at chest height. To sign “diaper”: With hands at the hips, take your index and middle finger and tap together with your thumb.
To sign “change”: Place your fists on top of each other, with your fingers touching. Extend your index fingers into hooks, and then change the positions of your hands.
This is such an effective sign to learn! Sometimes, the hurt isn’t as visible as a scratched knee; maybe their belly hurts, or they have a bruise that hasn’t yet formed. If a little one can communicate an external or internal hurt with a sign, the parent can more quickly find a solution. To sign “hurt”: Create fists with both hands, extend the index finger, and tap those fingers together. Tapping near the hurt body point signifies where the hurt is.
“One of my favorite signs,” says Kristine, a mom of two. “I loved using signs because then they could communicate without whining or crying for what they need.”
To sign “help”: With one hand flat, palm facing up, and the other in a fist with thumb up, place your fist hand on top of the flat hand, and move upwards.
McKnight noted that other popular first signs are “mom,” “dad,” “dog,” and “cat.” Because, of course, after you can communicate what you need, you want to communicate about things you love! Other moms chimed in with a few favorites like “cracker,” “ball,” “hot,” and “sleep.” No matter the words you choose to start learning alongside your baby, it’s crucial to understand the stages children go through when learning sign language. According to McKnight, this is what to expect:
- A blank, curious stare while you’re signing when your child isn’t sure what you’re saying. Since all children are processing language at this point, it is a time where immense learning can occur.
- The acknowledgement that the child understands what you are signing, e.g. “Do you want your MILK?” The child begins to know and anticipate the item about to be presented.
- You are signing and your child begins moving their arms and hands (although not with great clarity) to indicate, “I understand, and I am signing back to you.”
- The child’s signs begin to emerge as they mimic the correct sign.
If it sounds like baby signing is for you and your family, spend some of those late night feedings in the early weeks educating yourself on the options. There are many! Learn the first two or three signs you want to begin with, and start using them long before you think your baby might catch on. They are watching. They are learning long before they physically respond. Currently, I have a 6-week-old, and even now, I see him responding to certain cues. For example, when I place a burp cloth under his chin, he instinctively turns his head that direction, mouth wide open. He knows it’s time to nurse. This is how it begins. As my baby grows and begins interacting more, his siblings and I plan to practice simple signs with him to tear down communication barriers and begin understanding exactly what he needs when he needs it. Start your research by using one of the many sources online. Most of all, connect with other parents and children who are also learning baby sign language. Nothing is greater than peer-to-peer support!