Speak With Your Baby Using Sign Language
Life as a baby can be tough. There are so many things you want and need. But with the development of your language skills still many months away, it seems you only have one communication tool at your disposal: crying.
Enter baby sign language, which was invented by a pair of professors in the 1980s to help parents communicate with their pre-verbal offspring. Unlike American Sign Language (ASL), baby sign language includes a more modest collection of simple words that are useful for little ones — think “milk,” “hungry” and “help.”
Although development always varies, babies as young as 6 months may be able to communicate via sign language, preventing frustrations and tantrums that can occur as a result of communication breakdowns. Why cry for milk when you can simply sign that you’re thirsty?
Tips for Teaching Your Baby Sign Language
It’s never too early to start using signs with your baby, but don’t expect them to start signing back until they start gaining real control over their hand movements. Pediatrician Julia Danser of Dignity Health Medical Group says that usually happens around 6 to 9 months, and that’s also when they may start understanding symbolic gestures.
While baby sign language courses, apps and books are big business, teaching your baby sign language is a fairly straightforward process that only requires consistency and patience. “Go slow, be patient. Repetition is key,” Danser says. “Make sure to keep saying the words out loud. Visual aids are very useful. Make sure to keep it fun and as an exciting bonding activity with you!”
Keep Your Expectations in Check
Danser says there are no drawbacks to teaching your baby sign language except the potential frustration parents may feel if the baby doesn’t meet expectations.
“Development is a very individualized process and every child takes their own path,” Danser says. “Some will learn to walk before others; some will take longer to speak their first words than their cousins; others will skip crawling all together and walk instead. There is no one way that a child will reach developmental milestones, and that is OK and expected.”
How to Start
Begin with a handful of basic words, and simply make the appropriate gestures when you say the words. For instance, when you offer baby milk, use the “milk” sign. When you’re getting ready for bath time, use the “bath” sign.
You can add more signs as you feel comfortable, and eventually your baby will begin signing back. Here are 13 simple signs to start teaching your baby.
Whether your baby wants more food, more time with a favorite toy or more snuggles from you, the “more” sign will come in handy.
To make this sign, pinch your thumbs and fingers together, then tap your fingertips together several times.
Give your baby an alternative to throwing their bowl of Cheerios across the room when they’re done eating.
This simple sign is communicated by putting both hands up with palms facing in, then turning them so that the palms are facing out.
Food / Eat
Hunger is a common cause for meltdowns in babies, making this sign incredibly useful for bypassing any frustration that may come from communicating the desire for food.
Pinch your fingertips together and tap them against your mouth in a feeding gesture. (Think, the “chef’s kiss” gesture.) Once you’ve gotten that down, you can tackle specific foods like apple, banana and bread.
This is one of the most important signs for baby to learn, but don’t be surprised if they use it all the time!
To sign “milk,” make a fist, then open and close your fingers — as if milking a cow. Nice imagery, right?
Once baby starts drinking liquids besides milk and/or formula, they may want to communicate the need for a different way to quench their thirst.
Hold up your three middle fingers (ASL for the letter W) and tap your index finger to your chin. Similarly, the word “drink” is conveyed by making the motion of bringing a cup to your mouth.
Teaching this sign is a great way to make baby aware of their bodily functions.
Make a thumbs-up sign with your dominant hand. Then, grasp it in a fist with your other hand, and move your bottom hand down.
To do this appropriately playful sign, just think of the “cowabunga” gesture.
Hold both hands up and extend your thumbs and pinkies while clinching the other fingers to your palms. Then, with palms facing you, twist your wrists back and forth.
When baby needs a helping hand, this sign will definitely come in handy.
Make a thumbs-up sign with one hand, then place it over your other hand, flattened into a palm. Then move both hands up together.
If your little one isn’t feeling well or has injured themselves, the “hurt” sign will be invaluable.
Extend the index fingers of both hands and tap them together in front of your chest.
Let baby know it’s time for a bath by using this simple sign.
Imagine you’re taking a bath, and splashing around, and you've basically got it. Just make two fists and move them up and down in front of your chest.
Why not start teaching manners before baby can talk?
To sign “please,” rub your flattened palm over your chest in a circular motion.
The concept of sharing can be a challenge for little ones when they start interacting with other children. Start instilling this value early on by signing “share” when playing together.
Extend one hand flat into a palm with the thumb pointing up, then run your other hand back and forth along the top of your fingers.
Here’s another sign that encourages politeness from an early age.
“Thank you” can be communicated by touching your lips with the fingers of your open hand, then moving your hand out and down, palm facing up, as if blowing a kiss.