I often get asked by families who are using two spoken languages with their baby, “will signing just make things more confusing!?” My answer to this is always a resounding, “absolutely not!” The fact is that signing can actually help your baby make the connection between the two spoken languages, accelerating the learning process and facilitating better communication all around.
Signing: The Bridge Between Spoken Languages
As your baby’s receptive language develops, they begin to associate a spoken word with an object. For example, your baby will learn that the spoken word “cat” means that furry thing that walks around the house and won’t let me touch it. ;)
A bilingual baby will need to learn the cat=that furry thing and also that gato=that furry thing, and then also make the connection that cat and gato have the same meaning.
Enter baby sign language…
When you are signing with your bilingual baby, you can make this process much easier. When you say “cat” in English while signing “cat” in ASL [American Sign Language], and then say “gato” in Spanish while signing “cat” in ASL, you are showing your baby that they mean the same thing, and ultimately speeding up the learning process.
Other Benefits of Signing with Your Bilingual Baby
One of my favorite benefits of signing with bilingual babies is it provides an opportunity to know what your baby understands in both languages. For example, a family that took classes with me shared their amazement when their baby signed “peach” when her grandparents mentioned the word conversationally in Mandarin. Before that moment, they had no idea just how much of her grandparents’ language she was really picking up!
Signing in Action
There are many ways to expose your baby to two spoken languages, but one of the most popular is the OPOL (one parent – one language) method. This is when each parent speaks exclusively to the child in their primary language. For example, mom always speaks Spanish and dad always speaks English.
See How It Works
I was so excited when one of the members of my Tiny Signs online course shared a video of her bilingual baby signing while listening to her parents speaking to her in both French and English.
In this video, you’ll see how signing facilitates beautiful communication in a bilingual family…
Pretty amazing, right!?
Here are some very cool facts:
Baby Claire [in video] will sign “eat” when…
asked if she is hungry (in French or English)
asked if she wants breakfast (in French or English)
asked if she wants lunch (in French or English)
asked if she wants supper (in French or English)
This one simple sign allows her parents to really know what she is learning in both languages and how her vocabulary and comprehension is developing – all before she has spoken her first word!
To Wrap Up
If you are planning to use two spoken languages with your baby and have any concerns that signing might confuse things, I hope this puts that worry to rest, once and for all!
Baby sign language is a wonderful tool to enhance communication in your bilingual home!
A huge thank you to Melissa and Roch for allowing me to share their video. Merci beaucoup!
Do I just start doing the sign all the time? My baby doesn’t seem interested – how do I get him to look at me? Do I have to do the sign every time I say the word? What if I forget?
It might feel like a lot to take on during an already extremely hectic time in life. You might even start to wonder, “Is it even worth the effort?”
Believe me, as a busy mom myself, I get it!
But armed with some good advice and a solid plan, you’ll find that signing with your baby is actually fun and easy (not to mention totally worth it).
I’ve put together the following baby sign language tips to help make it as easy as possible for you!
Baby Sign Language Tips
Tip #1 – Choose signs based on your baby’s interests
Parents often pick practical signs when starting with baby sign language: milk, sleep, diaper, etc. This is totally understandable! Of course we want our babies to communicate these things to us – it would make life soooo much easier!
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: parents who pick signs based on their baby’s interests have much higher success with signing! LIGHT and FAN are just two examples of items your baby sees often that are very interesting to them and therefore very motivating. What are some things your baby seems interested in? Do you have a dog, a cat, or a fish tank? A ceiling fan in the living room, or a mobile over the changing table? Think about what might interest your baby, and if that might be a possible first sign to learn.
If you’re just starting out, you might be wondering how many signs to use at first. I recommend starting with a handful (4 is a good number). This will give you a nice variety without being overwhelming. You’ll want to use those 4 starter signs each day, if possible.
If you start with LOTS of signs, it can be hard to use all of them consistently so you might end up using some of them on one day, and other ones the next, which is not a great strategy. When you’re first getting started, start with 4 and stick with them. Use them as consistently as possible. Add more when your baby starts signing back, or when you’ve really got the hang of it and are eager to add more signs into your daily routine.
If your baby is already signing, don’t hold back! Introduce as many new signs as you are able (a few more each week) and watch how quickly they pick them up. When your baby’s signing really takes off, they might be picking up new ones every day!
This tip is a simple but important one. You want to always say and sign the word together. “Baby sign language” isn’t a formal language – it’s just what we call it when we pair sign language (American Sign Language or ASL on this site) with a spoken language (English and/or other languages). And because the ultimate goal when signing with hearing children is to facilitate and encourage speech development, it’s important to always say the word each time you sign it for reinforcement.
Tip #4 – Always sign in context
When you’re first introducing a new sign, always use it in context. Sign “milk” when your baby is feeding, sign “ball” when you or your baby is holding a ball. Sign “dog” when the dog is visible in the room, and so on. Signing in context will help your baby make the connection between the sign, word & object more quickly.
Once baby establishes the meaning of a particular sign/word, you can use the sign any time!
Tip #5 – Sign in your baby’s line of vision
You might find that it can be tricky to get your baby to look at you when you’re trying to show them a new sign! When introducing a new sign, you want to put yourself (and especially your hands) into your baby’s line of sight. One little trick you can try to is to make an interesting sound to get your baby to look at you. For example, if you baby is looking at a car, you can say “beep beep! vroom vroom!” which will likely make your baby turn to look at you. Once your baby’s looking at you, say and sign CAR before they turn away again. Voila!
Tip #6 – Have fun!
If you want to succeed in signing with your baby, the absolute BEST thing you can do is make it fun. Signing should be playful and silly – never a chore. If you’re feeling tired & grumpy, or your baby’s having an “off” day, skip the signing and try again when you’re both feeling better. When signing is incorporated into play time, story time and songs, your baby will be eager to get in on the action. So don’t be shy! Let your inner goofball out and have a blast!
Baby sign language is fun and easy when you feel confident that your efforts will pay off. Following the practical tips above will avoid confusion and help your baby get the hang of signing quickly!
More lessons in the How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language series:
When I decided to start signing with my first daughter, one of the first decisions I had to make was which signs we would start with. There are so many to choose from and I knew I wanted to keep it simple.
Like many parents, I started with basic baby sign language signs like MORE, ALL DONE and EAT. My initial hope was that baby sign language would allow my daughter to let me know when she was hungry or tired.
And she did! EAT actually was her very first sign (although I missed it the first few times she did it). But I was surprised to find that the signs she was most excited about (and used the most) were for things like LIGHT and CAR.
I quickly realized that there was so much more to talk about than just food and naps! And in the 10+ years I’ve been helping new parents teach their little ones sign language, I’ve found that sometimes the best signs to start with are NOT necessarily the most obvious choices.
In fact, I’ve seen this happen with my students over and over. New parents start out signing with common basic baby sign language like MORE, MILK and MOM. They try and try to get their little one to sign back, but it’s just not working. They start to lose hope and consider giving up.
Then I’ll suggest picking some new signs based on their little one’s interests, and BAM, their little one starts signing back. I’ve had students whose first signs were BIRD, BLUEBERRY and even FAN. Some thoughtfully chosen playful signs will make a huge difference in how quickly your baby signs back.
Most parents begin with what I call useful signs when they are first starting out. Some of my favorite useful signs are MILK, EAT, MORE, ALL DONE, and BED, which I’ll show you how to do below (it’s really easy!).
Useful signs will make life with baby a whole lot easier because your baby will be able to tell you when he’s hungry, sleepy or even needs a diaper change. Another great thing about useful signs is that you can use them many times throughout the day at every feeding, changing, and nap. This gives you lots of chances to practice signing to your baby, and lots of opportunities for your little one to see the signs.
Learn how to sign MILK, EAT, MORE, ALL DONE, and BED.
You’ll find even more examples of useful signs here:
So, yes, while these useful signs are really practical, you might be surprised to learn that they might not be your baby’s first signs.
After more than a decade of teaching baby sign language, I’ve learned an invaluable trick to getting babies signing quickly is incorporating some playful signs when you first get started.
Playful signs are important because they work with baby’s interests and motivate them to start signing.
Think of it this way, your baby is already a pro at getting her needs met. By crying and fussing, she can let you know she’s ready for a feeding or a nap. And while it might be hard to imagine right now if your baby is really little, there are lots of things your baby will be eager to “talk” with you about (like the DOG or CAT, or even the ceiling FAN!). This is where playful signs come in.
Playful signs are signs that will motivate your baby to start signing back, and they are different for every baby. Picking the right playful signs boils down to figuring out what tends to capture your baby’s attention, which you might already know.
If you’re not sure which playful signs to start with, spend some time today or tomorrow observing your little one. Does she kick her legs every time she looks up at the LIGHT or ceiling FAN? Or does she point, or smile, or make noises when the DOG or CAT is nearby? Does your baby have a favorite toy? Maybe a squeaky GIRAFFE or BANANA teething toy?
Some of my favorite playful signs are DOG, LIGHT, BALL, BOOK, and CAR, which I’ll show you below.
Learn How to Sign DOG, LIGHT, BALL, BOOK, and CAR
You’ll find even more examples of Playful Signs here:
Picking the right signs to start with will have a direct impact on how quickly your baby signs back. In order to spark your baby’s interest in signing, you’ll want to think outside the box when picking first signs. Selecting a mix of both useful signs that you can use throughout the day AND playful signs to motivate your baby is the secret to your signing success!
More lessons in the How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language series:
Learn when to introduce baby sign language, when babies usually start signing, and what to expect depending on your baby’s age and developmental stage.
When to Start Baby Sign Language
The question I get asked more than any other is, “When is the best time to start signing with my baby?”
The Simple Answer to the Question: When to start baby sign language?
The short answer: You can start anytime, as long as you have realistic expectations.
Here are the facts…
Most babies start signing back in the 8-12 month range (with 10 months being the average)
Some babies might start signing back as early at 5-6 months old
Other babies might not pick up signing until after their 1st birthday (and that’s ok!)
Just like other developmental milestones like sitting up, crawling and walking, all babies are different and have their own timeline. So use the information above as a guideline to decide when you think is the best time for you to start signing with your baby.
Signing with your 0-6 month old baby
If your little one in under 6 months old and you’re eager to get started, should you wait to start using sign language? Not necessarily.
As mentioned above, some babies start signing as young as 5-6 months, so you never know! Just keep in mind that it’s not typical for babies to start signing this young and you might be signing for quite a few months before you see that first sign. But it will happen if you stick with it!
Another thing to keep in mind is that your baby with recognize and respond to YOUR signs before they ever make their first sign, so signing to your young baby is still beneficial and sets the groundwork for using your hands (along with your voice) to communicate.
One last important thing to keep in mind when signing with your baby at this stage… Your baby’s vision is still developing during these early months so she’s focused on things within about a foot of her. That means that if you’re signing from across the room, she’s not going to see you. Any signing done during these early months needs to be in pretty close proximity to your baby in order to be seen by your little one.
Signing with your 6-12 month old baby
Every month of your baby’s first year brings exciting new developmental milestones. One of the big milestones that happens in the 5-7 month range is that your baby will likely start sitting up independently, which frees their hands and arms to reach, grab and explore their world in a whole new way. It also around this time that some babies will start clapping or raising their arms to be picked up. These are great signals that your baby is ready to start signing!
Of course, there is a BIG difference between a 6 month old baby and a 9 month old baby, and again, all babies are different, but if your baby is in the 6-12 month range, it’s a fantastic time to introduce sign language! Just be patient and use the above guidelines to manage your expectations.
Signing with your 12-18 month old baby
By the time your baby turns one, their receptive language (what they understand) has really exploded! They understand almost everything you say to them, even though they may only be speaking 1 or 2 simple words. This is when sign language really becomes essential for everyone’s sanity.
If you haven’t started signing with your baby yet, you may be wondering if it’s too late. Not to worry! It’s definitely not too late to start, and the good news is, your little one will likely pick up signing really quickly at this point.
You’ll find that your older baby/young toddler has a LOT they want to say and giving them the tools to express their thoughts and wishes will alleviate much of the frustration & meltdowns that typically start around this age.
Signing with your 18+ month old baby
If you’ve got a toddler who is getting really frustrated by their inability to communicate with you, you might be realizing just how helpful sign language would be!
So what are you waiting for? It’s not too late, and your toddler will pick up signs faster than you. ;) Jump in and start learning some signs for their favorite foods, toys & activities. You’ll see their frustration decrease and everyone’s happiness increase.
The Best Time to Start Signing with your Baby
To wrap up, whether your baby is 6 or 16 months old, you can start using basic American Sign Language vocabulary to facilitate early communication. You can start signing with your baby anytime, as long as you have realistic expectations and are patient. Don’t give up! Stick with it – you and your baby will be so glad you did.
Get Started Using Baby Sign Language Today
So now you might be wondering which signs you should start with and how to learn them. I can help! Join the Tiny Signs community today and get started signing with your baby. You’ll get free access to my video dictionary, as well as a free checklist and more!
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Many times each day, your baby will need your help with something – they are hungry, tired, wet, uncomfortable or frustrated. Babies usually let us know they need something by vocalizing and even crying. As parents, we want to be responsive to our baby’s needs so that they will be happy and trust that we are there to care for them.
When your baby starts rolling, crawling and exploring their world…that’s when things get interesting! As baby’s interest in the world grows, so do the opportunities for frustration! There are so many things they want to touch, taste and explore – and sometime things don’t go the way they’d like because of their still developing motor skills.
When your baby can’t reach the thing they want, or something they are trying to get their hands on is stuck, they will likely SHRIEK in frustration and to let you know they need your help. When this happens, it is an excellent time to introduce the sign for “help.”
To teach your baby the sign for “help,” ask them “do you need HELP?” And sign “help” as you say the word. Watch the video below to learn how to do the sign correctly. Then help your little one solve the problem and and reinforce the sign again by saying, “mama HELPED (demonstrate the sign again) you, now you have the toy!” Continue to model the sign whenever opportunities arise and in time your baby will sign “help” to you when they need you!
Want to learn more signs to teach your baby?
Click the image below to have a FREE baby sign language chart delivered straight to your inbox!
An Antidote to Helplessness—Melissa’s Baby Sign Language Story
Melissa works full-time outside the home as a clinical psychologist with a focus on trauma. She is a first-time mama to her son Max (13 months), who she is absolutely crazy about and falls more in love with each day. Melissa is extremely grateful for Max and his ebullient, loving, resilient and generous spirit; he inspires her to approach life with more awe, humor, and kindness every day.
How We Started Baby Sign Language
I have always been fascinated by the use of sign language, and baby sign language was one of the early ways I communicated with Max.
We started communicating when he was in utero. The first time I heard Max’s heartbeat, it was like he was telling me, “Don’t worry mama. . . . I may not move that much, but I’m doing just fine in here.” Every time he moved, it felt like communication.
When Max was around 6 or 7 weeks old, he would coo and pause. I would talk back, and then he would coo in response. It felt like a conversation.
Then we started signing. The first sign we recognized in Max was fan at the age of 10 months. In retrospect, I realize he had been signing all done even before that. There were times we thought he was swatting us away (especially when we were giving him medications), when he was actually signing and articulating his desire to be all done.
Baby Signing Success
I was excited at first about signing. As time went on with him not responding, I worried I would have the first baby who never signed back. That worry was tied to my concerns about his cognitive development secondary to feeding issues and slow weight gain. Despite that worry, signing turned out to be a saving grace.
When Max was just a few months old he would regularly be in intense pain, and each week he continued to decrease percentiles in weight and height. Eventually, his GI distress got so intense that his discomfort was undeniable.
In the hospital
Several specialists, medical procedures, feeding therapy appointments, and inpatient hospitalizations later, we ended up with a feeding tube. It helped our child grow but it felt so unnatural. I was on a strict allergen-free elimination diet, I was pumping 7–8 times per day so that my breast milk could be put into the tube, we were dosing him with several meds several times per day, and we were waking up throughout the night to tend to his distress and issues with the pump.
Practicing signing with Max gave us a respite from all of that—something fun and positive to focus on that continued cultivating our relationship and that had nothing to do with feeding issues. And when Max finally did start signing back, we felt pride, success, and accomplishment in what had been such a long road of confusion, questions, and mistakes.
Once Max picked up a few signs, it wasn’t long until there was a sign language explosion! I went from thinking Max would never sign to feeling like I can hardly keep up with learning new signs to teach him. I am telling others about his signs and making videos of signs and his approximations so others can support him.
Signing was something we did together in the midst of something chaotic and terrible, so it helped us to see how resilient we truly are as a family. Max’s signing reassured me that we were all going to be okay.
Signing has helped Max understand what we are saying more fully, in both English and Spanish, even if he doesn’t have the signing or verbal vocabulary to respond. At 13 months he’s signing fan, all done, light, book, more, dog, orange, stick,milk, and up, and verbally he says hi, bye-bye, up, ball, and book. We’re constantly trying to figure out more that he’ll be motivated to use. It’s such a thrill to see him beam with pride and excitement as he communicates and is understood.
Max Signs “fan!”
Baby Signing Challenges and Surprises
I’ve been surprised by abstract signs like more. That was one he signed very quickly. I thought he was confusing it with cherries because the first time he signed it was in the presence of cherries. But he actually understood what it meant and had generalized it to other contexts.
Learning about recognizing early signs has helped me recognize early verbal words in a way that I wouldn’t have without Lane’s instruction. So many of the tips for recognizing early approximations of signs parallel ways to recognize approximations of verbal words.
What We Love about Baby Sign Language
Max is such a social baby and has always been that way, and so I think baby sign language really meshed well with his natural predilections and strengths.
Splashing in slime
Baby sign language makes life so much easier and less frustrating when you are able to understand one another. But mostly, it has given me a source of mastery and accomplishment. Baby sign language has been an antidote to the helplessness I’ve felt throughout the feeding issues. To be able to know what he needed or wanted, and to meet that need if we could, has helped me feel competent, effective, and attuned. So many times I have thought, “What do parents with babies who CAN’T sign do?”
How Tiny Signs Online Helped
Tiny Signs has without a doubt been the foundation of our success.
The Tiny Signs class is presented in digestible chunks that are accessible and easy for busy family. Nothing is repetitive or extraneous. The tips are useful and not necessarily something you would find elsewhere. But really, the key is Lane.
Lane is so inspiring! She helps you stay connected to the fun. Lane’s spirit and passion is contagious. You feel gratitude that your paths crossed and that what she is doing is a calling.
Lane is so responsive and encouraging in a genuine and heartfelt way—and that is hard to convey via electronic means! Every time Max signs a new sign, I want to show her a video to share in the excitement. We wouldn’t be here without her.
Lane, you are amazing, and we’re so thrilled to have had your help. We can’t thank you enough.