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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