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Baby Sign Language: How To Communicate with Your Baby Before They Can Talk

Baby Sign Language: How To Communicate with Your Baby Before They Can Talk

Wouldn’t it be great if babies were born with the ability to easily communicate? It sure would make a parent’s life easier. Although a child won’t be able to speak in full words until close to one year, many hearing parents use baby sign language with their infant before then to communicate and help understand what they need. 

Research shows that babies actually begin to develop the small muscles in their fingers well before the muscles in their tongue and mouth. This means that early on, they will have a better ability to communicate through hand signs instead of speaking.   

Wouldn’t it be nice to have your baby express themselves through signs rather than a cry or scream? This way there are no guessing games involved.

When Can a Baby Learn Sign Language? 

Since all babies develop at their own pace, it’s best to notice your child’s development (instead of age) to determine whether they’re ready for sign language. Your baby can start to learn sign language as soon as they take an interest in their surroundings, and also when they show the fine motor skills of grasping and using two hands together.  

Therefore, learning sign language can start as early as four months old. If that seems too early for you, you can really begin at any time after that. Between six and eight months old is typically a good starting point, and it’s an age where your baby can really respond well. 

It will take some time, and more importantly consistency, in order to master this skill – but the rewards can be great. 

What are the Benefits of Baby Sign Language? 

Just as children will naturally learn to speak and verbalize just from existing in their surroundings, it’s beneficial for them to learn sign language early. They’ll develop an understanding of how to socialize and how people communicate with each other.

Earlier Communication 

Sign language allows your baby to express their wants or needs, at a time while speaking may still be a struggle. Developmentally, most children can make signs before they can speak, which is why baby sign language works.

Baby sign language dates back to the 1800s when linguist William Dwight Whitney observed how babies of deaf families were able to communicate through signing before babies of hearing families could communicate through speech. Dr. Joseph Garcia, a longtime interpreter and researcher, took it to the next level with his work in the 1980s and since then the movement, has grown to numerous organizations and professionals who offer classes and workshops to helping families communicate with their infants.

For some children, verbal language comes early and easily. There are some babies who have a small vocabulary of words before their first birthday. On the other hand, some children are late bloomers and may not speak well until after two years old. Instead of waiting to find out what kind of speaker your toddler will be, get started on baby sign language early on.  

If your child wants more food, a drink, playtime or to take a nap, it becomes much easier for them to use signs to let you know. 

Keeps their Emotions More Stable 

Even though your baby can’t speak yet, they still have a mind of their own. Babies can get very frustrated when they aren’t getting what they want, so the ability to communicate will help calm these emotions.  

Your baby can now spend more time being content and happy because they’ve got their needs met, rather than crying over something that you may not be aware of. 

Gives their Brain a Boost 

Did you know that communicating via sign language actually activates more parts of the brain than speaking verbally? 

In order to sign, babies develop both fine motor skills and cognitive skills, when they plan out what they want to say. Instead of simply hearing something and speaking back, babies have to watch the sign, listen to the spoken words, plan out what they want to respond to, and then use their body to form the sign. 

This becomes a far more complex sensory experience for babies. 

How To Teach Your Baby to Communicate with Signs 

Now that you know why it’s so important to teach sign language to your baby, get started with these tips below. 

Speak and sign

Say the word as you make the sign, so your child can pair the word with the sign for future verbalization.  

Make it fun

The last thing your baby wants to do is sit through a sign language lesson from mom. Incorporate signs in your everyday activities and communication. For example, you can sign “all done” when a meal is done, or if it’s time to transition to another activity. Likewise, sign “more” if your child wants more food or another push on the swing. Learning to sign should be just as fun as age-appropriate eductional games and toys.

Use signs frequently

While some experts recommend you start with a few signs, others suggest that you introduce and use many at once, just as you do when speaking with your child.   

Repeat, repeat, repeat

There’s no better strategy to get your baby to learn sign language than to do it constantly. Be consistent as you make the signs for every diaper change or during every meal. 

Help model the signs

Use your hands to guide your baby’s as well. Sit your baby on your lap and physically make the signs with their own hands and arms. Use a hand-over-hand technique to let them practice and produce the muscle memory of the sign.

Use facial expressions

Sign language is not just for the hands. Facial expressions are very important in conveying your message as well. Make baby sure you’re showing expressions as you sign for them. 

Be patient

Learning signs can take time for young babies, often weeks or even months. Don’t get frustrated with your baby, but be calm and patient and it will come.  

Give Positive Reinforcement

If you see your baby attempt a sign or even attempt to make one, reward with a kiss, or a “hooray” – and of course, by following through with what they are trying to communicate. If they are signing for more milk, offer them milk. If they are signing “all done” with food, clean them up and move on to the next activity. Let them know you acknowledge their follow-through and that they are doing a great job.  

Look for approximations

Your baby may not immediately show a sign exactly how it should be done, so look for gestures that may be close to the sign they are trying to convey. If your baby thinks they are sending a sign, but you’re not responding to it, they may become more frustrated.  

Words to Start Signing Now

Now that you know how to teach your baby sign language, you can begin teaching it as soon as possible. Check out this YouTube video to get started with seven basic signs (Note: the “sleep” sign demonsrated in this video is not the standard sign; the traditional sleep sign is an open-hand movement going from the top to the bottom of your face, to mimic going to sleep).

Commonly-used baby signs include:

  • More
  • All Done
  • Food
  • Milk
  • Water
  • Sleepy
  • Potty

Once your baby learns those, you can expand from there. Remember to be consistent, make it fun, and repeat as much as you can. You can sign up for a class in your community at a neighborhood center or with your mom’s group, or check out some online offerings. The more you practice sign language with your baby, the faster they will learn.

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About The Author

Marissa Labuz

Marissa LaBuz is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist turned full-time blogger who loves sharing her advice, experience, and designs with the world. She runs the blog, justsimplymom.com, all while starting tickle wars and dance parties with two energetic toddlers and calming a newborn baby. When she doesn't have her hands full of children, she enjoys a glass of wine, reality tv, and country music.

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