Plenty of parents have moaned, “If only you could tell me what you want!” at their little ones. While teaching your baby or toddler sign language won’t magically make them perfectly able to express their needs and wants, it can enhance the early, nonverbal communication skills of babies older than six months1 and continue benefiting your toddler as they age.
What is Baby Sign Language?
Baby sign language can be a modified version of American Sign Language (ASL) or Quebec Sign Language (LSQ).1,6 While some families choose to use versions of ASL or LSQ signs modified to make it easier for little hands and developing motor skills to accomplish, other families sometimes create a kind of sign language that is unique to them.2
When to Start Teaching Your Baby Sign Language
You probably know that it’s best to start talking to your baby early and often3—some believe the same to be true for incorporating sign.2 Don’t get ahead of yourselves, though; baby likely won’t be able to sign back until they’ve passed the six month mark and have the motor skills and cognitive development necessary.2 But don’t give up! Just as your baby will start to repeat words you say and connect those words to objects and actions, so too will your little one start to make those connections with the baby sign language you’ve been teaching them by example.
Tips for Teaching Your Baby or Toddler Sign Language
Here are some tried and true tips for teaching your baby or toddler sign language:1,2
Use simple signs, whether adapted ASL/LSQ or your own gestures.
Sign during day-to-day routines and ensure you repeat both the word and the sign attached to it often.
Practice sign with your little one often—and ask others in the household and who spend time with your little to also try integrating sign into their routines with baby.
Start with a small number of signs—three or fewer—and keep using and practicing until you see that your baby has integrated it.
Set realistic expectations and be patient—your little one won’t immediately begin monologuing once you begin teaching them to sign.
Don’t worry: If you didn’t start signing with your little one as early as you started talking to them, there’s still plenty of time to start integrating sign into your communication.
Benefits of Teaching Your Baby or Toddler Sign Language
Learning sign—whether a personal collection of gestures or a modified ASL or LSQ—comes with plenty of benefits for you and your child:4,5
For Babies & Toddlers
Effective communication tool. It can be hard sometimes to figure out what your baby wants and needs; baby sign language provides your child with a tool to communicate.
Bonding and fun. Teaching and practicing sign language is a great opportunity to bond and have fun together!
Faster, easier acquisition of vocal language. Some studies have shown that rather than hindering the ability to start talking, babies and toddlers who have been taught to sign and continue signing do better on spoken language skills tests than littles who didn’t learn to sign.
The ability to communicate with deaf or hard of hearing people. If you begin teaching your baby or toddler to sign using modified ASL or LSQ—or continue using sign at home and switch to ASL/LSQ as they age—you’ll have provided your child the ability to communicate with a whole new portion of the population.
For Both of You
Clearer understanding of needs and wants—before vocal speaking. Sure, your baby won’t be signing full sentences, but you’re more likely to understand whether they need to eat or want a toy sooner than if they didn’t sign.
Ability to communicate if nonverbal. Some special needs children pick up sign and are able to use it to communicate needs and wants even though they’re nonverbal.
Communicate clearly in loud places. Whether at a party or in a crowded store with shoppers darting between you, if you and your signing little can see each other’s hands, you’ll be able to easily communicate even in the loudest situations.
While the year-and-a-half mark of toddlerhood is typically when parents can expect baby’s verbalizing to really ramp up, you can start signing with baby way before then. If you decide that teaching your baby or toddler sign is the right choice for your family, you may already be having meaningful language-based communication.