home > speech therapy news and blog

An SLP’s Perspective: Baby Sign

What is baby sign?

Baby sign is the use of American Sign Language signs with infants.

Why should I teach my infant/toddler to sign?

Children are able to communicate with their hands to sign faster than they are able to use their lips to speak. This is because development always moves from bigger, farther out muscle groups (e.g. hands, feet) to the smaller, central muscle groups (e.g. lips). This means your child will likely be able to communicate early wants/needs with signs sooner than they will say the word. This increases communication, reduces tantrums/frustration for the child, and decreases parental stress because you understand what your child is communicating. It gives them a jump start on language and cognitive development. It also enhances your bond with your baby, as you are using early conversational skills, eye contact, and turn-taking.

Will teaching my child to sign impact their spoken language development?

No! In fact, it often supports the development of spoken language as the child is able to make connections in the brain between the signs and your response (e.g. milk -> you give them milk), and then they are able to build on that connection to the spoken word. This aids not only their language development but their overall brain development.

Are there any cases where using signs is especially important?

Yes. If your child has hearing loss, using signs early is very important for language development. Using signs has also been shown to help children with multiple disabilities. Tactile signs can be used for children with visual impairments to aid their language development. Sign language is also helpful for a typical child, as sometimes we are in a noisy environment, lose our voice when sick, or are far away but still in eye-sight of our family.

What signs are best to teach my infant/toddler?

Start with simple nouns/verbs that are most important to your child, such as ball, milk, eat, play, car, mom, or dad. These are easiest for a child to learn because the concept or object is more concrete, so it can be visualized and identified more easily. Once your child has mastered everyday, useful objects/concepts, you can add in more complex concepts like social words (e.g. thank you, please) and more complex words, including actions, adjectives, or location words (e.g. run, walk, talk, clean, hungry, thirsty, outside, etc).

How do I teach my infant/toddler signs?

Practice with them often! Often, parents know what their child needs without the child using a word, gesture, or sign. For example, if you know your child is hungry:

  1. Pick your sign (e.g. eat)
  2. Get down to your child’s level, make eye contact
  3. Produce/model the sign and verbal word together (e.g. EAT sign + “eat”)
  4. Use your child’s hand, if they are willing, to copy the sign (e.g. EAT- bring the child’s fist to their mouth)
  5. Praise. (e.g. “You said eat! You want to eat, let’s go eat, yay!”)
  6. Give your child something to eat
  7. While your child is eating, talk with them and use the sign (for example “I see you’re hungry, let’s eat (+EAT sign). You feel better because you’re eating (+ EAT sign).
  8. Repeat. The more practice your child gets, the faster they will learn.

It’s important to remember that your child’s fine motor skills are still developing. They may not produce the sign perfectly at first, and several signs may start looking the same. This is normal. Accept a close approximation (e.g. fists together for “more” instead of O handshapes together).

Here is a list of early signs that are useful to start out with:

  1. Eat
  2. More (best used for an item/food, such as more cookies, more toys, more bubbles)
  3. All done
  4. Mom/Dad
  5. Other important family members (e.g. brother, sister, grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, cousin)
  6. Milk
  7. Water
  8. Bed (or Sleep. Bed is easier to sign)
  9. Potty
  10. Wet/Poop
  11. Go
  12. Again (typically used for actions, e.g. again swing, again throw)
  13. Yes
  14. No
  15. Book
  16. Car
  17. Baby
  18. Animal signs (e.g. cat, dog, fish, etc)
  19. Bath
  20. Play
  21. Turn
  22. Share
  23. Please
  24. Thank you
  25. Hurt (likely will be approximated as this sign is made with your index fingers only)