Baby sign lan­guage (also called baby signs or preschool sign lan­guage) are sim­ple hand ges­tures that cor­re­spond to words. Baby signs allow infants to com­mu­ni­cate long before they can talk. 

Infants’ ver­bal abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate can lag behind their desire to share their thoughts with oth­ers. With­out signs, infants who wish to have their thoughts and desires under­stood by oth­ers must rely on point­ing, cry­ing, or repeat­ing what­ev­er syl­la­bles they can produce.

What Age Should You Start Baby Sign Language?

Between 9 and 13 months of age, infants are typ­i­cal­ly able to begin asso­ci­at­ing par­tic­u­lar ges­tures with objects, events, or needs and using the ges­tures to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­er people. 

Both adults and chil­dren ben­e­fit when they are able to estab­lish a con­sis­tent sys­tem of mutu­al­ly under­stood com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Even when infants begin talk­ing, baby sign lan­guage can con­tin­ue to help them com­mu­ni­cate requests that they are not yet able to com­mu­ni­cate verbally. 

What is the Point of Baby Sign Language?

The improved com­mu­ni­ca­tion that results from using baby sign language

  • strength­ens the bond between chil­dren and the care­givers with whom they can share their thoughts;
  • improves infants’ and tod­dlers’ com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills, which fos­ters their feel­ings of com­pe­tence and self-esteem;
  • reduces the frus­tra­tion that comes from not being understood;
  • speeds children’s lan­guage devel­op­ment and increas­es their inter­est in books.

Introducing Baby Sign Language

Start by using a few sim­ple signs dai­ly and con­sis­tent­ly. Intro­duce signs to chil­dren dur­ing dai­ly rou­tines, in songs and games, or by read­ing books and going places—in the con­text of any activ­i­ty that involves the child. 

While teach­ing a spe­cif­ic sign, use the sign along with words until the sign is firm­ly estab­lished in the infant’s vocab­u­lary. Rep­e­ti­tion is the best way for infants to learn a sign. 

Help infants devel­op signs for

  • objects they see often, includ­ing pic­tures in books;
  • activ­i­ties they do, such as eat­ing and drinking; 
  • what they want or need, such as more food or to be held.

Recog­ni­tion that an infant is com­mu­ni­cat­ing is essen­tial to build­ing their self-con­fi­dence and self-esteem, and rein­forces what the infant has learned. Use words to con­firm your under­stand­ing of what the infant is say­ing with signs. Your ver­bal recog­ni­tion will encour­age con­tin­ued use of the signs.

Commonly Used Baby Signs

Some of the most com­mon ges­tures infants and tod­dlers use to com­mu­ni­cate are wav­ing bye-bye and mov­ing their head up and down to mean “yes” or from side to side to mean “no.”

Infants are capa­ble of learn­ing and using many, many more signs. Some com­mon signs include

  • open­ing and clos­ing hands to rep­re­sent a book or reading;
  • hold­ing a fist to the ear to rep­re­sent a telephone;
  • hold­ing and mov­ing an imag­i­nary steer­ing wheel to rep­re­sent a car;
  • mov­ing the index fin­ger hor­i­zon­tal­ly in front of the teeth to rep­re­sent a tooth­brush or brush­ing the teeth;
  • mov­ing the fin­gers as you would while typ­ing to rep­re­sent a computer.

Many infants spon­ta­neous­ly devel­op signs of their own, espe­cial­ly to iden­ti­fy objects. Signs to iden­ti­fy ani­mals tend to be favorites among tod­dlers. They often choose a sign that rep­re­sents a move­ment or typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tic of the animal.

Signs for more, up, down, in, and out help com­mu­ni­cate tod­dlers’ fre­quent needs and desires.

Is Baby Sign Language the same as ASL?

Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage (ASL) is a com­plete lan­guage with its own gram­mar and rules, where­as baby sign lan­guage con­sists of any signs and ges­tures you use to com­mu­ni­cate with chil­dren. You may choose to use signs from ASL in com­bi­na­tion with signs that you or the infants comes up with.

Learn from par­ents what signs infants use at home. Share with par­ents the signs their chil­dren use while in your care. 

While you can sug­gest signs to infants to expand the child’s sign vocab­u­lary, it is essen­tial to allow them to use what­ev­er signs or ges­tures they wish to express their thoughts. Infants will often adapt a sign that an adult has intro­duced, sub­sti­tut­ing a ges­ture that makes sense to the child. It is per­fect­ly accept­able for infants to adapt signs how­ev­er they please. Any ges­ture used to com­mu­ni­cate is an accept­able baby sign. Mutu­al under­stand­ing is what is impor­tant. Care­givers’ enthu­si­asm and encour­age­ment rein­force infants’ inter­est in sign­ing and lead to infants devel­op­ing a more exten­sive sign vocabulary.

Does Baby Sign Language Delay Speech?

In the past it was believed that using baby sign lan­guage at an ear­ly age could delay infan­t’s lan­guage devel­op­ment. Research does not indi­cate that using baby signs delays lan­guage devel­op­ment, and say­ing words out loud while sign­ing to infants is a great way to intro­duce mul­ti­ple forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion to infants. Using baby sign lan­guage with infan­t’s is rec­om­mend­ed by the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics as a great way to sup­port infan­t’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. 

Learn more about early language development!

Look­ing for more ways to help chil­dren feel com­pe­tent? Check out our blog How to help chil­dren suc­ceed. More infor­ma­tion on baby signs and ear­ly lan­guage devel­op­ment can be found in our child­care train­ing cours­es Infants in Child Care and Tod­dlers in Child Care.

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Please con­tact us and let us know how we can be of addi­tion­al assis­tance! Call us: 1–800–685‑7610, Mon­day through Fri­day, 9–5 ET, or email us days, evenings, and week­ends: We’re here to help!

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