Babies begin communicating from the moment they are born – using cries, coos & grunts to make their needs and desires known. As their bodies and minds develop, their communication evolves to include eye gaze and even pointing at objects that interest them.
Whether or not they are exposed to sign language, all babies communicate through non-verbal gestures. Most will wave, point, and even lift their arms to be picked up. Babies do this because their receptive language (what they understand) develops months ahead of their expressive language (what they can communicate). How does sign language fit in? Using sign language with your baby simply builds on this natural expressive ability.
Baby sign language is the practice of using this natural ability to communicate using gestures to facilitate quality communication before a baby’s ability to speak has developed.
How Signing Affects Language Development
A question that often comes up when discussing using sign language to communicate with an infant is “how will signing affect my baby’s speech development?”
Let’s take a look at the evidence: in research studies on using sign language with babies, none have shown that using signing causes a delay in language development. In fact, the overwhelming majority of research shows that signing has many positive short-term and long-term effects.
While there have been many studies done on this topic, the most influential research was conducted in the 1980s by researchers at University of California, by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. This study was funded by the National Institute of Health and it was inspired by Dr. Acredolo’s personal experience with her own baby…
Dr. Acredolo noticed her infant daughter “blowing” at the fish in the aquarium at the pediatrician’s office. Later in the day, when putting her daughter down for a nap, Dr. Acredolo ‘activated’ the fish mobile above her daughter’s crib by blowing on it to make it spin. Realizing her baby was communicating the concept ‘fish’ by making blowing gestures, Dr. Acredolo (along with Dr. Goodwyn) went on to conduct one of the largest research projects on infants and pre-verbal communication.
The result of the National Institute of Health research project were nothing short of amazing! The researchers compared a group of 11 month old infants who were exposed to signs and gestures to a control group of 11 month old infants who were exposed only to speech only. Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn found the following:
By aged 2, the group of signing babies:
Had larger vocabularies
Understood more words
Had stronger language skills overall, and
Used longer sentences
How Signing Affects Cognitive Development
Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn followed up with the infants in their original study when the children were age 8 and found that the children who were signed to as infants had, on average, IQs that were 12 points higher than their non-signing peers.
Other notable research by Dr. Marilyn Daniels studied the impact of using sign language in the early childhood classroom (preschool and kindergarten). Her research focused on how signing affects literacy in hearing children. Her research found that young students in classrooms that incorporated signing into the lesson had many positive effects on young learners and that students in signing classrooms scored significantly higher on vocabulary test than the students in the typical classrooms.
Students in the signing classrooms
Had better letter and sound recognition
Were better spellers with larger vocabularies
Had higher reading levels
Dr. Daniels concluded that signing had a positive impact on test scores and literacy skills because it accommodates multiple learning styles including auditory, visual & kinesthetic learning.
How Signing Affects Social & Emotional Development
Most child development experts will cite that frustration is the main cause of toddler tantrums and meltdown. Often this frustration stems from an inability to communicate and be understood. Using signing to facilitate communication during this challenging time can have an incredible impact on both infants and caregivers.
Some research has been done to study how signing impacts the parent-child relationship. Findings suggest that babies who sign receive better language feedback from their caregivers. For example, a baby who points at a new object might initiate a discussion about the object of interest with their mother.
Studies also suggest that parents who use signs with their babies experience less stress and frustration, and are more affectionate with their babies. Research also has shown that signing babies are more engaged and connected with their parents and initiate interaction more often.
From an evidence-based perspective, the body of research supporting sign language use with infants and toddlers is compelling. The number of studies itself demonstrate the interest and awareness of this enriching way of communicating with babies. In the course of research, popular doubts and concerns such as delayed speech from signing have been effectively debunked. Most importantly, the research helps to validate the curiosity and desire parents have to start communicating with their little ones much sooner than “mama” or “dada” is first uttered.
Research Summary of Benefits of Signing with Babies:
Expanded spoken vocabulary
Increased interest in books
“Infant sign language really does deliver on its promise of improved communication.”
– The American Academy of Pediatrics
Acredolo, LP and Goodwyn SW. 1988. Symbolic gesturing in normal infants. Child Development 59: 450-466.
Acredolo, Linda P., and Goodwyn, Susan W., The Longterm Impact of Symbolic Gesturing During Infancy on IQ at Age 8, International Conference on Infant Studies (July 18, 2000: Brighton, UK).
Daniels, Marilyn, Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy. Bergin & Garvey, October 2000.
Daniels, M. (1994). The Effects of Sign Language on Hearing Children’s Language Development. Communication Education, October, v43 n4, p291 (8).
Daniels, M. (1996). Seeing Language: The Effect Over Time of Sign Language on Vocabulary Development in Early Childhood Education. Child Study Journal, 26, 193-208.
Gongora, X. and C. Farkas, Infant sign language program effects on synchronic mother-infant interactions. Infant Behavior & Development, 2009. 32: p. 216-225.
Iverson JM and Goldin-Meadow S. 2005. Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological Science 16(5): 367-371.
Claire D. Vallotton, Catherine C. Ayoub, Symbols Build Communication and Thought: The Role of Gestures and Words in the Development of Engagement Skills and Social-Emotional Concepts During Toddlerhood, Social Development 19:3,601-626 (August 2010)
Vallotton, C., Infant signs as Intervention? Promoting symbolic gestures for preverbal children in low-income families supports responsive parent-child relationships. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Volume 27, Issue 3.
Deciding which signs to start with is one of the first big questions parents face when beginning with baby sign language.
To make things super simple, I’ve put together this collection of 9 videos of my absolute favorite starter signs and created a totally FREE printable chart to go with it. Download the free chart below and print it out as a visual reminder of which signs you’re using and how to do them!
How to sign ALL DONE in American Sign Language. Oh the possibilities for this one are endless! Use this one whenever you are transitioning from one activity to another and your baby will get the idea. You can sign “all done” when you’re taking your baby out of the carrier, high chair, bath, car seat, you name it.
You can sign & say this at the end of a feeding or when you finish a book. You can use this sign along with the words “all done,” “finished,” and even “the end.” Once your baby starts signing this one back to you, it’s really helpful that they can let you know when they’ve had enough BEFORE the tears come.
How to sign BALL in American Sign Language. Curve all your fingers (this is called a “claw” handshape in ASL) and bring your hands together to show the shape of a ball. Pro tip: You can do this sign with a ball in your hands if it’s small enough. This is a great technique to show your baby the sign, because their eyes will be on the ball…AND your hands!
How to sign BATH in American Sign Language. Sign bath to your baby as you’re getting ready for bath time and during the bath. You can also use this sign when you see someone taking a bath in a book you’re reading. You can sign this one on your body or right on your baby’s body (if they don’t mind).
How to sign DOG in American Sign Language. This is definitely not my best video because you can’t see my hand – sorry! But this is a super easy sign – just pat your thigh with your hand like you are calling a dog to come to you. Easy peasy.
There are 3 ways to sign dog in ASL. 1) Pat your thigh 2) Snap your fingers or 3) Do a combo of the pat & snap. I prefer keeping it simple by patting your leg. You can even pat your baby’s thigh to teach them this sign, just to give them the idea.
How to sign EAT in American Sign Language. The sign for “eat” is the same as the sign for “food” in ASL. I recommend introducing this sign when your baby starts eating solid foods. Use it every time your baby has something to eat and remember your baby’s sign might not look much like yours! They’ll do their best by either touching their mouth (or maybe even their ear, like my first did!). You don’t need to correct them, just keep doing it the right way and they’ll copy you to the best of their ability.
How to sign LIGHT in American Sign Language. Open your fingers to show the rays of light shining down on you. This is probably by *favorite* baby sign ever. Both my girls did this one early & often. It’s not one that you might typically think of, but it’s really motivating and exciting for babies.
Pro tip #1: Hold your baby and let them play with the light switch to show them this sign.
Pro tip #2: When your baby signs this one back, it might look a lot like the sign for “milk” but with their arm extended.
How to sign MILK in American Sign Language. Just open & close your hand like you’re milking a cow. This is an excellent first sign! If you think your baby’s ready for a feeding, you can sign milk and ask them “do you want some milk Then you can reinforce it by signing & saying it again while your baby is feeding. Use the sign for milk whether your baby is nursing or bottle-feeding.
How to sign MORE in American Sign Language. With fingers touching your thumbs, bring your fingertips of both hands together a few times.
This is a great first sign but can sometimes cause a little confusion. Babies quickly learn that they get something they want when they sign “more” so will often start signing “more” all the time. Parents are then left wondering, “more WHAT?” This is an easy first sign, but remember to also introduce signs for specifics things your baby might want (milk, book, daddy, crackers) so they can be more specific about what they want. ;)
From Milk to Fireworks—Yael’s Baby Sign Language Story
Rowan is a 13-month old firecracker with two working moms: Birgitte, who is an engineer, and Yael, who works at a university. Living in beautiful Bergen, Norway, Rowan has been lucky to have one of his moms at home on parental leave up until he was a year old, and for now he is at a nanny’s three days a week. Yael speaks English to Rowan, and Birgitte speaks a mixture of English and Norwegian. Both of them use baby sign language to help facilitate Rowan’s early communication and to provide a bridge between his two languages.
How We Started Baby Sign Language
Birgitte and I knew other families that used signs with their babies, and I had studied ASL for a year when I was in college. I started using the sign for milk when I offered to nurse Rowan beginning when he was about five months old. We had looked at books on signing with your baby, but we didn’t really get serious about using other signs until Rowan signed “milk” back one night at bedtime.
Rowan signs “bear”
That first sign came in early August when Rowan was 9.5 months. He got a lot of positive feedback!
“You want milk? You signed milk! Of course you can get milk!”
I gave him the opportunity to nurse right away. After that he used the sign for milk every time he wanted to nurse, until about 12 months.
We were excited by that first sign. Then for a long while there was only one sign at a time. Rowan would learn a new sign, and the previous sign he had been using would disappear. Right around when he turned 13 months, he started adding signs, and very quickly, sometimes after seeing the sign only two times.
My advice for other parents: Be very patient! I signed milk to Rowan for several months every time he nursed before he signed anything back.
What We Love about Baby Sign Language
The most wonderful benefit of using baby sign language is seeing Rowan’s excitement at his ability to communicate with us about what he needs or wants, what he is seeing and thinking. It’s also exciting for us to have a little peek into Rowan’s world before he is able to express himself with spoken language. Birgitte and I are constantly thinking about what new signs to introduce.
At almost 14 months, Rowan can (and regularly does) sign: light, all done, dog, more, music, book, ball, car, food, bird (which he also uses for duck), bear, cheese, egg, mobile (he uses the sign for fan, since we don’t have any ceiling fans at home).
He also understands a good many other signs that we sign to him.
Baby Signing Success
When Rowan was 13 months, the family went into town for the annual Christmas tree lighting event and concert that ends with a big fireworks display. Rowan hadn’t seen fireworks before, and he was fascinated. (Yes, he had ear protection on).
Later, while having dinner at home, Yael, Birgitte and a visiting friend were talking about the fireworks. Suddenly Rowan raised both hands, signed “light” all over the place, waved his arms around. Then leaned his head far back looking up, as if looking at the sky. Then he looked at the adults and blew raspberries, making little explosive noises. He was talking about the fireworks! It was amazing!
Watch Rowan sign…
How Tiny Signs Online Helped
Tiny Signs Online was critical to our family’s success with early communication. We were already using the sign for milk and had long wanted to start baby sign language with Rowan. We had even bought a book, but it wasn’t until we made the commitment to the online course and watched the videos that we really started using signs in earnest.
Lane’s videos offered many important tips, especially about choosing which signs to use and how to recognize your baby’s early signs. Lane is enthusiastic and her suggestions are always helpful and to the point.
Through the members-only Facebook group, Lane has answered our questions almost right away, including quick videos to show particular signs by request, which kept up our motivation to keep signing. We also enjoyed sharing stories and successes.
Even though we had a baby sign book at home that we thought was quite good, the course really motivated us to use sign language actively, and to seek out and introduce new signs based on Rowan’s interests.
One Saturday morning at my Tiny Signs class in Boston, I heard a dad say the following to another parent…
“Well now that I’m learning a little sign language, I’ll be able to talk to people anywhere I go!”
A Common Misconception
Thinking that there is one “sign language” used throughout the world is a surprisingly common misconception. However, most people (when they actually give it some thought) quickly understand why that just isn’t possible.
Languages Evolve Geographically
Like spoken languages, sign languages evolve based on the geographic communities that use them, and are passed along from one generation to the next within those geographic regions. If you think about it, how would a Deaf person in rural Thailand learn to use the same sign language as the Deaf community in Australia? It just doesn’t make sense. And, because sign languages are constantly changing (there was no ASL sign for “texting” 10 years ago!), it would be impossible for communities across the globe to keep up with each other’s ever-changing vocabulary.
There is No One “Sign Language”
So there is no one “sign language” but many beautiful and diverse sign languages around the world. In the US and most of Canada, we use American Sign Language (ASL), while in England they use British Sign Language (BSL).
So while both the US and UK share a spoken language with English, our sign languages are quite different. And while the US and France have different spoken languages, our sign languages – ASL and LSF (Langue des Signes Française) – are quite similar as the head teacher at the first school for the Deaf in the US was French. Fascinating, right? :)
So Now You Know
So the next time you hear someone talking about how “sign language is universal,” you can gently correct them. There are more than a hundred different sign languages in the world, and American Sign Language is just one of them.
When I started teaching Tiny Signs classes back in 2009, I never would have guessed that the question I would get asked in almost every class session would be, “does it matter which hand I sign with?”
But it’s a great question and I’m always happy to answer. I actually have TWO answers to the question: the official American Sign Language answer and the “signing with a squirmy baby in your arms” answer. Check out the video to hear my explanation, or skip to below for a quick summary…
Here’s a quick recap…
For one-handed signs – like “milk” – use your dominant hand. Your dominant hand is the hand you write with.
Two-Handed Signs (same hand shape and motion)
For some two-handed signs – like “more” – it doesn’t matter because your hands are doing the exact same thing.
Two-Handed Signs (different hand shape and motion)
For some two-handed signs – like “tree” – your dominant hand (the one you write with) takes a starring role doing the main motion or action of the sign, and your other hand (non-dominant hand) takes a supporting role.
I hope that helps if this was a question on your mind. Let me know if you have any other questions in the Comments below!
Note: Some links in this post are affiliate links, which means I receive a commission if you make a purchase. There is no additional cost to you. Thanks for supporting my small business!
Where to find the best baby sign Language books, videos, and more
Parents often ask me what the best resources are for teaching your baby sign language. What is the best baby sign language book? Do I need to take a class? Can you recommend videos? Flashcards?
These are great questions! To help make it easier for you to find the baby sign language tools you need, I’ve created a list of my favorite resources to help you get started.
The Ultimate Baby Sign Language Resource Guide
I don’t know about you, but when I want to learn something new, I head straight to Amazon or the library to see if there’s a good book on the topic.
After recommending books I didn’t love for many years, in 2018 I had the opportunity to write the book that had all the tips & strategies I teach my students. Obviously, I’m totally biased, but I love this book! Below are 5 reasons I think you’ll love it too…
It’s short & sweet and gets right to the point I wrote this book with the busy (and tired!) new parent in mind. No fluff, no filler. It gets right to the good stuff so you can get started signing right away.
It teaches you how to teach your baby to sign Step-by-step instructions walk you through exactly what you need to do to succeed. You’ll also find answers to all your questions about baby sign language.
It’s filled with tips & strategies A comprehensive troubleshooting guide and tips throughout the book will make sure you avoid the common mistakes that most parents make.
It’s beautifully illustrated The illustrated ASL signs are colorful, accurate and easy to understand. Additionally, you’ll find video instructions on how to do every sign in the book in my online baby sign language video dictionary. Each sign has clear instructions, memory tips, suggestions on how to use the sign, as well as how to recognize your baby’s version of the sign.
It’s filled with songs, books & activities Every chapter wraps up with fun & easy ways to incorporate sign language into your daily routines with your baby, including board books, song and games you already know.
Ok, I’m just going to be put it out there: I hate flash cards.
Parents often ask me about them, and honestly, I’m just not a fan. In my experience, they don’t create the type of interaction that babies need at this stage of their development. When I see parents using flashcards, they almost always fall into a routine of asking their baby, “What’s this? And what’s this?” This ‘quizzing’ type of interaction is not the sort of conversational communication that babies need to build their budding language skills.
So what’s a parent to do?
Seeing the need to have a handy reference, I created my own baby sign language printable charts for parents and teachers to use at home and in the classroom. These printable charts are organized by theme and can be printed or used on an iPad or other device. I find them to be more useful than flashcards because they help remind you to sign, and how to do the sign, but still allow you to interact in a conversational way with your baby.
It’s bath time and you’re just getting your little one into the water. You’ve got your Bath Time Signs printable handy (in a plastic page protector so it stays dry), so you can refer to it as you chat and bathe your baby. You sign WATER as baby splashes and plays, and then you sign COLD when baby shivers as it’s time to get dry.
A baby sign language class with a skilled instructor can be a great way to learn how to sign with your little one. Plus you’ll get the added bonus of meeting other new parents in your community. Baby sign language classes generally meet weekly for a series of classes and teach signs, songs and strategies over the course of the session. You’ll learn tons of songs & activities that you can use at home and get tips & strategies from your instructor.
To find a class, just do a quick search online for baby sign language class near me. Or ask around at the library or other places where you meet other new parents.
Unfortunately, it might be hard to find a class in your area, and if there is one, it might be too far or on a day or time that doesn’t work for you. If that’s the case, you might want to look into an online baby sign language class that allows you the flexibility to learn from home and on your own schedule.
Online Baby Sign Language Classes
A quality online class is a great option, especially now when attending in-person events is not recommended. A good online class includes video instruction on signing, lessons with tips and strategies, printable guides and resources, and an experienced instructor who is available to answer all your questions.
Online classes are a great solution for busy parents who want the flexibility of learning online. They’re also ideal for anyone who doesn’t have time or access to in-person classes. You can work through the material at your own pace (and in your PJs!) and refer back to it in the future, should you need a refresher. A quality online course also offers a community experience where you can interact with other parents to learn and support each other through the process. A clear path to success, including tips and strategies is what sets a quality online course apart from “classes” that provide little more than an online video dictionary.
To find a good online baby sign language class, check the credentials of the person offering the program to make sure they have completed training in this field. Look to see if they have a background in child development, early childhood education or speech/language development, as well as a solid knowledge of American Sign Language.
I am more than a little biased here, but I spent more than 2 years creating Tiny Signs: The Essential Course, a comprehensive online course to teach your baby sign language. This program offers EVERYTHING you need and is exactly what I wish I had when I was muddling my way through signing with my first baby. If an online course sounds like the way to go for you, you’ll definitely want to check it out.
So there you have it…
I hope you enjoyed this round up of my favorite resources and tools for learning baby sign language. If you have any more questions about signing with your baby, please share it in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond. If an online baby sign language course if for you, I invite you to join me in Tiny Signs: The Essential Course – you won’t regret it!
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