Baby Sign Language

May 13, 2010 at 11:44 pm 2 comments

12 month old signing airplaneBy the time that they are a year old, infants can understand far more words than they can speak.  Over the past few decades, research has shown that pre-verbal toddlers can use simple hand gestures to communicate through baby sign language.  In addition to reducing frustration for both parents and toddlers through improved communication, studies have shown that babies who were taught basic sign language have larger vocabularies, increased IQ scores, and better ability to interact socially with other children.   Kids as young as a year old can form relatively complex, multi-word sentences with verbs and adjectives such as “want more milk”.  This in turn develops the language centers in their brains earlier than children who are otherwise limited to pointing and grunting or at best, a few basic nouns.  My pre-verbal kids even used pleasantries such as please and thank you!  I particularly enjoyed seeing my children’s sense of pride and excitement when they successfully used a new sign.

When to Start. Like many areas of child development, there is a range of ages at which your child may begin to sign.  Books on the topic suggest using signs with your kids starting at about nine or ten months of age, although it may take several months for the child to initiate signing.  One rule of thumb is that if the baby is old enough to wave hello or goodbye, she is already “signing” at least those words, and is likely ready to pick up more.  As kids learn how to speak words aloud, they simply stop using signs as speaking is easier.  Though for more complex words such as “helicopter” or “aligator”, you may find that the sign is used for some time while the child is otherwise primarily speaking.

What Signs to Use. Ideally, you would use standard signs such as American Sign Language, as this allows your baby to communicate with a variety of caregivers or other children.  However, this is not always practical given that many toddlers have a difficult time with the dexterity required for ASL, for example water requires three out of five fingers to be extended, forming a W.  What is most important is that you and your child understand each other – even if you make up signs.    If the child is having a hard time with a particular sign, try simplifying it or choosing other words that may be easier.

Teaching Tips. While you’re teaching baby signs, be consistent and repeat the signs whenever you or other childcare providers speak the associated words out loud.  Also, try focusing on a few signs at a time and create opportunities to talk about those words.  For example, leave out pictures of apples and bring an apple to the table.

Starter Words

  • All done
  • Book / Read
  • Eat
  • Milk
  • More
  • Want

More Resources:

Baby Signs book by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn

Signing videos at

Photos of signs

Entry filed under: Language. Tags: , .

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