Baby Sign Language: will it work for my baby?

Most babies don’t start talking until around their first birthday. Your ten month old is crying, you ask him what he wants and he signs for milk. Is this type of communication possible? Many parents have turned to baby sign language so that can begin to communicate with their child. We give you some tips and explain the pros and cons of the process.Tristan-book-read-again-for-mum-n-more

What is baby sign language?

Baby Sign Language is a pre-verbal communication tool using visual cues, a modified version of sign language,  to communicate before your bub can talk. This can be a very effective communication tool to help baby express themselves and can be a fun way to give you and your child an opportunity to bond.

There is limited research into baby signing, but it is thought to give babies an effective means of communication several months earlier than those who use vocal communication. Between eight months and two years, infants know what they want and feel frustrated as they do not yet have the full verbal vocabulary to let you know. Further research is needed if we are to believe the claims that it promotes advanced language, literacy and cognition.

How it works:

In terms of development, the understanding of language and motor skills develop a lot faster than the ability to speak. So it is not surprising that babies can learn sign language, especially with the adage “monkey see, monkey do”. Signing with deaf children began in the 17th century with Dalgarno who invented a finger spelling system. Child Development expert Joseph Garcia noticed how many babies point and wave long before they could say the words. He took this one step further in developing baby sign language.

After studying deaf parents who taught their hearing children sign language, he saw how easy the process was. The children appeared less demanding because they were able to express their needs to their parents. This made both the baby and the parent seem less frustrated.


  1. Less Frustration: this process does take patience, from mom and baby. Even just a few words can really help to understand what baby wants when they are crying. Signing bridges the gap between understanding words and be able to verbally express them.
  2. A closer bond: Many parents are delighted to find out what is going through the minds of their little ones. Even simple signs that communicate that the dog is asleep or a plane flew past can help you feel like you are sharing their day.
  3. Helping language develop: Parents worry that by teaching babies sign language you are interfering with their normal speech development. Research has found the opposite and singing may in fact improve language and vocabulary. Garcia points out that signing is about enhancing and not replacing language. You can use verbal language alongside with signing to create the link between the gesture and the word. For example if baby signs “plane” you can create two-way communication and respond verbally.

Many infants who learn sign language start talking earlier and have a bigger vocabulary by the time they reach pre-school age. Think of this as teaching your child another language, experts believe that once you have mastered one language it is easier to master the second.  Signing develops the “building blocks” in understanding language

How to start:

As with any new skill, start when baby is ready and expresses a desire to communicate. At around eight months babies are more sociable and use noises and facial expressions to communicate with you. To begin, familiarise yourself with baby signs. You can even create your own signs, but the point is to be consistent with lots of repetition so that baby can learn them. Every time you say the word be sure to show baby the sign.

To get the most out of your baby sign language, keep these tips in mind:

  • Set realistic expectations. Experts say that you can start teaching baby signs from about six months old, but they won’t be able to sign back until about eight months. Every child is different and develop skills at different rates. You can start signing to your newborn, but you can’t expect them to sign back until they are older.
  • Keep signs simple. Make this process easier by using words that they are familiar with like “Mommy”, “Daddy” and “Eat”. Use words that describe their routine or things that are familiar in their life. Words that have meaning to them will be easier for them to remember. Start with one or two words and then build the vocabulary from there.
  • Make it interactive. Use this teaching as a learning activity where you can bond with baby and make it fun. Place baby on your lap and use their hands to make the signs. Alternate talking and not talking while signing to encourage verbal development too. Give the signs context by signing while doing the activity, for example signing the word “bath” while in the bath. Encourage any gestures or signs that your child makes and acknowledge when they are signing a word.
  • Stay patient. If signing frustrates baby, stop, this is meant to ease communication not cause additional stress. Don’t get discourage if they sign incorrectly or don’t mimic you straight away. Avoid accepting indiscriminate gestures as signs. Practice these signs regularly to help baby remember and teach anyone looking after baby so that baby feels understood when they do sign.

Keep in mind that, as you teach baby sign language, it’s important to continue talking to your child. Spoken communication is an important part of your child’s speech development.

Here are some free flashcards to help you get started. Also view the chart attached for some basic signs. has some great free resources and videos on how to make the basic signs.

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