How to Teach Baby Sign Language
It took a few months, but you’re starting to decipher your newborn’s cries. In fact, you’ve got your baby’s non-verbal cues pretty much down pat – until you encounter a cry you haven’t heard before.
It’s frustrating to be in a position where you can’t figure out what’s wrong with your baby, but thankfully, there are still ways you can communicate with your newborn when you can’t interpret their cries.
In fact, you can expand on non-verbal cues you already know to teach your baby hand-based signs you can use to understand each other. You can’t teach your little ones to “use their words” just yet, but you can teach them to “use their signs” to communicate until they learn to speak.
The History of Baby Sign Language
The history of baby sign language began in the early 1980s when professors Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D., noticed that Acredolo’s infant daughter had a habit of making up signs for objects around her. That discovery led them to develop a formal communication system that includes more than 100 signs and gestures adapted from American Sign Language (ASL).
Learning how to teach baby sign language to your child might seem advanced, but you can start teaching your child to use these signs as early as four months old. Babies catch on to the connection between spoken words and their meanings at about six months old – well before they learn to speak – but you can get a head start by expanding on the non-verbal cues they already use. If your baby likes using a finger-sucking motion to express hunger, for example, you can copy the motion to ask if they’d like a bottle, or maybe a squeezing motion (like an orange) to figure out if they’d rather have juice. Kids can understand words well before they can say them, so it’s important to make the sign as you say the words so they can learn the connection between the two.
Several experts have developed their own systems of specific signs and gestures throughout the history of baby sign language, but you can also make up your own signs. When it comes to basic sign language for babies, you can mix and match each approach depending on what works for you. As your little one develops, you might even find that your child may adapt the signs you teach independently.
Signs to Start With
Although baby sign language systems can vary, parenting website TheBump.com has a list of signs and visual demonstrations for each. Start with a few of these more basic signs:
- Food/eat: Snacktime would be a great opportunity to teach this sign. Make the tips of your fingers touch your thumb and bring them toward your mouth as if you’re about to eat your fingertips.
- Drink: If your little one has a sippy cup, teach this sign by pretending you’re about to drink from an imaginary glass. Cup your hand and bring your hand to your mouth.
- More: One thing’s for sure, babies love asking for more! Bring the tips of your fingers and your thumb together on each hand, then bring your hands to your front and touch your fingertips together.
- All done: Demonstrate this sign by showing your hands are empty. Hold your hands in front of you with your palms facing you, then turn both hands completely out, where your baby can see them.
- Water: Pretend you’re showing the number three with your hand. Your index finger should be closest to your face. Point your index, middle, and ring fingers upward while you keep your thumb and pinky tucked in together. Then, bring your hand towards your face and tap your chin with your index finger.
- Thank you: Straighten your hand out with your palms facing you. Make your fingertips touch your chin, then extend them outward towards the child with your palms up. It should look like you're blowing a kiss, but your fingertips should touch your chin, not your mouth.
- Book: Bring your hands together, palms touching, with your thumbs facing up, then open your hands. Your hands should extend outward, with your pinkies touching. It should look just like opening a book.
- Help: Stretch out one hand flat, with your palms facing up. Take the other and make a fist with your thumb out, like a “thumbs up” sign. Place your fisted hand on top of the flat one and move them upward together in one smooth motion.
Tips for Effective Teaching
Now that you know several signs (and can make up some of your own), you have to figure out how to teach baby sign language effectively. Don’t worry if your little one doesn’t quite catch on right away; the key is reinforcing the connection between the sign and the words associated with it. It could take a couple of months, but your child will eventually mimic the signs you teach and use them to communicate with you. Learning how to teach baby sign language isn’t particularly difficult, but you do have to be dedicated. These tips should make teaching basic sign language for babies easy for you and your child:
- Keep it simple: You know your child better than anyone, so adapt your initial lessons to what your child might learn quickly. Pick a few signs that would be meaningful for your little one. Kids eat and drink every day, so consider teaching those signs first. Drink from a glass in front of your child a few times, then make the same motion without the glass to teach the sign for “drink.” You can do something similar by eating a cracker and then making the same motion empty-handed to demonstrate the sign for “food.”
- Pair signs with actions: Use these signs throughout the day to reinforce the connection between the signs and their meanings. You can try signing the words “food” or “drink” during mealtime, or the sign for “all done” when it ends. You can also teach signs based on your child’s favorite activities. If your child loves storytime, for example, start with the sign for “book” and go from there.
- Stay consistent: Make teaching basic sign language for babies into a routine. Remember to say the words as you make the signs. You can also try moving your baby’s arms and hands according to the sign you’re teaching as you say the words. The history of baby sign language suggests that frequent repetition will help your little one remember the signs, so try to do it as often as possible until your baby starts to mimic you.
- Use your words: Remember to say each word aloud every time you sign. This helps your baby connect the signs to the words associated with them.
- Be patient: This is going to take some time. Most kids start mimicking basic sign language for babies at about 8 months old, so understand that learning how to teach baby sign language is a process. Try not to get frustrated if your child doesn’t learn the signs right away. Babies take some time to learn things, but once your child learns these signs, they will become a key part of the way you communicate fairly quickly.
- Spread the word: Again, repetition is key, so don’t be afraid to let family and friends know that you’re figuring out how to teach baby sign language to your little one. Teach them the same signs your child is learning so they can communicate with your baby. That constant reinforcement will help your little one learn much faster.
- Reward your baby: Positive reinforcement goes a long way. Make sure you respond to your child’s efforts to sign promptly. Repeat the sign and the associated word, and reward your little one in some way to motivate more signing.
The Benefits of Baby Sign Language
Some experts worry that learning basic sign language for babies can lead to delays in speech, but the history of baby sign language shows that signing shouldn’t replace verbal communication. Knowing basic sign language for babies doesn’t mean that you should speak to your child less. At the end of the day, both speaking and signing help children develop their communication skills, and focusing on one doesn’t decrease their ability to use the other. In fact, knowing how to teach baby sign language to your child has many benefits for your little one.
The history of baby sign language research suggests that learning sign language actually helps children speak earlier and develop larger vocabularies over time. Acredolo and Goodwyn found that 11-month old babies who learned sign language knew more words by the age of two than those who hadn't. Experts have also found that children who learn baby sign language:
- Develop higher IQs
- Demonstrate more temperate behavior
- Develop better ability to understand words and speak properly
- Demonstrate improved use of proper sentence structure
- Display increased bonding with parents
Teaching your baby sign language improves their non-verbal communication skills and helps them process their wants, needs, and emotions more effectively. As they get older, you may find that these lessons helped them understand words more quickly and develop more advanced verbal communication skills. If you’re interested in learning more about building your child’s communication skills early, our research-based online courses on brain development, infant learning processes and language development strategies can help you transform your child into a stronger communicator.