Baby Sign Language – A Way of Communicating With Your Infant

Baby Sign Language

For a parent, communicating with their child is one of the most rewarding experiences possible. This experience usually takes close to 2 years to begin. Verbal and audible skills develop much slower in babies than motor skills. Interestingly, recent studies by experts in the field of early childhood development show that there may be a new way to communicate earlier with your child – sign language.

Discovered by renowned child development expert Dr. Joseph Garcia, this new form of communication can help you communicate with a child as young as 4 months old. The child cannot respond until the age of 8-9 months but if taught, a 4-month old child can understand their parents and other caregivers. This allows parents to open a line of communication for their child far earlier than if they solely depended on verbal communication.

What is Baby Sign Language?

Sign language for babies involves utilising a baby’s developing motor skills to form a line of communication, this can be done by actions like hand movements that are associated with words. This discovery was made when Dr. Garcia observed a child of deaf parents communicating to the parents much easier and at a much younger age. This allowed researchers to expand their research to include children that could hear and how they communicate with parents that could hear. The results indicated that children could perform the hand gestures associated with a word like ‘mother’ much earlier than orally communicating the word.

Using this technique is known to open the lines of communication with your child well before they can actually speak. This doesn’t cut out their temper tantrums or stop the crying but it can at least help you communicate with them from an early age to calm them down or soothe them. This also allows a child who has not yet developed the requisite speaking skills to communicate with parents about any problems like injuries that may be bothering them.

When to Start Teaching Sign Language to a Baby?

Babies begin developing their motor skills by the age of 4 months, this means you can begin teaching them how to sign by this age. A child may not be able to respond or use the skill to communicate till the age of 8 months but they will understand and be able to process the information within the first month of being taught the skill.

Simple sign language words for babies can be taught to a child at the age of 4 months. They should be able to process and understand the information and what it stands for within a week or two of being taught.

Son showing 'thumbs-up' to mother

How Does Baby Sign Language Work?

Much like any the other lines of communication, baby sign language builds a connection of understanding between your baby and you. As your baby grows, they begin to develop the ability to perceive and mimic hand movements. Using your movements and reinforcing them with words that are associated with those actions, you can begin training your child to understand and respond to these movements.

The basic principle of sign language involves a combination of gestures done in sequence, which may indicate a word, groups of words, or a simple sentence. Since a baby has the ability to move before they speak, sign language can be used as an effective means of basic communication. This over time can become a method of fluent communication as well and is commonly used to help deaf infants and children communicate with their parents.

Benefits of Infant Sign Language

As mentioned above sign language for babies is not only for deaf children and carries many benefits for audibly healthy children as well:

    1. Teaching sign language to babies significantly enhances their brain development.
    2. Sign language builds a bridge between thought and action. This helps children develop better coordination.
    3. Teaching babies sign language allows them to communicate better with the audibly challenged. This opens doors to new societies to them.
    4. Children who learn sign language at infancy are known to be better communicators as they begin communicating at a much earlier age. Gestures are also a huge part of communication and your child will be comfortable using them from a very early age.
    5. Sign language is thought to help your child empathize more.
    6. Teaching a child sign language is known to enhance their ability to orate and speak in public.
    7. Sign language can help children with confidence issues in communicating in a non-verbal and non-threatening manner which can help them build verbal confidence.
    8. Sign language, if taught to children early enough can help them enhance their linguistic absorption skills.

Teaching Baby Sign Language

Like with teaching any new language, there are a lot of obstacles and challenges to consider when teaching your child sign language. The most important thing to keep in mind is persistence, patience and practice. Teaching your child any skill, be it motor or verbal, these three points are always helpful. Here are a few signs to teach babies first.

1. More

This sign can be extremely helpful when your baby begins to learn to use it, they can indicate a need or requirement.

How to Teach

Extend the fingers on both hands. Bring all five fingers of each hand together to form a point. Tap each point together and say ‘more’, this will reinforce the meaning to your baby. You can also say the word in your local language and English to help enhance the sign’s meaning.

2. Done

This sign can be extremely useful and can help communicate the finality of an action or indicate the end of a chore to your baby. This can also help you tell your child that something is not available.

How to Teach

Extend all your fingers, showing the back of the palm to your baby, twist your palm to show an empty front of the palm, verbalize the word ‘done’ while performing the action to help your baby understand and relate to the action. Ensure you say the word slowly and clearly to emphasize the effect and relationship of the word to the action.

3. Eat

This sign is extremely handy during meal times. When the child is able to understand and mimic this action, they can tell you if they are hungry.

How to Teach

Extend all your fingers and bring them to a point. Bring the fingertips to your lips and repeat this motion. Say ‘eat’ or ‘food’ while doing this action, this will help them relate the action to the word.

4. Milk

One of the easiest signs to teach a baby and possibly one of the most useful, this can be used to help communicate feeding times for your baby or when they begin using it can be a way for them to tell you they want milk.

How to Teach

First show your child an open palm, then curl it into a fist and pull down, the motion is similar to that of milking a cow, repeat milk slowly, clearly and several times during the action to reinforce the word through verbal communication.

5. Change

Babies always resist diaper changes, this is because they don’t understand that they can play once they are changed and feel the diaper change is a sign of being separated from their toys. Using this sign can help them communicate the change is temporary and using the sign done can indicate the completion of the diaper change.

How to Teach

Make a fist in both palms, connect the wrists and knuckles together and rotate the fists in a clockwise direction. Once the changing is done, sign ‘done’. Repeat the words ‘change’ slowly and precisely at a pace where your baby understands it, do it while signing, do the same and verbally repeat done when signing ‘done’.

6. Help

One of the most important signs to teach a baby, this could be critical when your baby tries to ask for help or indicates something is wrong. Teaching this sign will instantly improve the lines of communication and reduce the tantrums.

How to Teach

Showing your child both palms, place one flat and facing the ceiling, make a fist with the other and push your thumb towards the ceiling, place the fist on the palm, lift the palm and push the fist up, curl and extend the thumb, this signifies help. Repeat the word ‘help’ while doing the action to reinforce its meaning.

7. Play

This sign can be met with enthusiasm from most children, it is also important as they can use it to say they want to play.

How to Teach

In both palms, curl the centre three fingers and extend the thumb and little finger, connect the curled fingers at the knuckles of the other palm, this makes a Y using your hands, swing this towards your chest and away from it while repeating play.

8. Water

An essential component of life, teaching this sign will help you better understand when your baby is thirsty. They can use this sign to ask for water.

How to Teach

Extend all your fingers on one palm, connect the fingertips of the thumb and little finger, this will make a W, move this to your lips and away from your lips while repeating water. This will help them understand the action and the word are linked.

9. Book

A vital part of any child’s development Is reading to them or having them read, this sign lets your child know it’s time for a book.

How to Teach: Open both palms, connect them together at the little finger, mimic the opening and closing of the book in your palms by bringing the thumb together and then further apart again. Say the word book out loud, slowly while performing the action.

10. Bird

Teaching your child the action for a bird can be a fun way to introduce them to the world of animals. Use this sign while reading a book about animals to show them what a birds looks like.

How to Teach

This sign is very simple to teach. Cross your palms over each other, and lock your thumbs, so that your palms extend on either side like the wings of a bird. This gesture also casts the perfect ‘bird-shadow’ in the sun!

Mother teaching girl to sign 'bird'

11. Share

 This sign can help instil a crucial behavioural value to your child, remember sharing is a very important aspect of life and this sign can help you get that point across from an extremely early age.

How to Teach

With both palms open, place one palm’s little finger along the line of your other palms index finger, have your thumb point to the sky and move the upper palm with the little finger on the index finger of the lower palm towards the thumb and back to the fingertips of your index finger. Repeat the word share while performing this action.

12. Please

Like share, this action can help instil an important word into your child’s life, this can teach them to be polite and ask for things.

How to Teach

One of the easiest and possibly most important signs to teach a child, repeat the word please slowly while placing your palm on your chest and rotating it in a circular clockwise motion.

13. Thank You

Much like the previous two signs, thank you is an important sign to teach your child.

How to Teach

This is another easy sign to teach, say the word thank you while moving your open palm towards your lip and away, mimicking a flying kiss.

14. Apple

Using the word apple in sign language can help you indicate what an apple is, this can be used at mealtime to indicate that they are getting an apple to eat.

How to Teach

Make a fist and push the index finger’s knuckle slightly out, let the knuckle connect to the cheek and twist it counterclockwise, say the word apple during the action.

15. Bread

Another sign useful for meal time, like apple it can be easy to teach and can tell your child what they are getting to eat.

How to Teach

Place one open palm against your chest, move the other hand’s palm up and down in front of the palm that is against the chest. Say the word bread while doing this. The action with the palm in front mimics the slicing of a loaf of bread.

Things to Remember While Training Your Child

Here are a few key points to keep in mind when training your child sign language:

  • Be patient, teaching them sign language takes time and can be frustrating, every child learns at their own pace.
  • Don’t force it, if your child doesn’t get it right away don’t force the action, a child needs to understand and mimic the action, this can take time.
  • Speak in calm, even tones. This will soothe your child and help them understand every action’s related word.
  • Frustration is normal as a large part of teaching your baby sign language is one way. They cannot perform any action till their motor skills develop. Try taking breaks between signing to calm down.

Talk to your childcare specialist for more tips and things to remember while teaching your child sign language.

Tools to Make Learning Easier

There are numerous tools like books, seminars and instructional videos to help you understand how to teach sign language to your child, some psychologists and physicians practice sign language with children, talking to them will help you understand the tools you require for the job. Using pictures while signing can help visually link an action and word, this can make it more relevant. Remember to talk to a specialist in children’s communication and baby sign language to better understand the logic, technique and method for teaching your child this skill.

The development of your child is a lifelong process, depending on what skills they learn, life can become easier for them. Sign language for babies can help improve communication but it does not guarantee an end to their tantrums if your child is acting out and behaving abnormally badly, talk to a child psychologist. Enlist the help of child psychologists to also understand different techniques that may help you learn how to teach your child sign language and what signs to teach them. Remember to ask them if they can give you a guidebook to sign languages with images of different signs.

Also Read: How to Support Healthy Brain Development in Babies