Baby sign language can help your baby communicate with you before they’re able to speak. Learn how to start teaching your baby sign language, including when you should start and which signs you should teach first.
How to know what your little one wants? What they’re interested in?
All parents of babies have experienced the struggle --- baby needs help from you, but can't tell you exactly what they need yet, so they cry louder and louder as their needs aren't met. What a frustrating experience for both of you!
But with baby sign language, you can empower your little one by helping them communicate with you before they’re able to speak.
Baby sign language is more basic than ASL (American Sign Language), although many of the signs are similar. It's meant for babies with full hearing.
(Deaf children and children who are hard-of-hearing should start to learn the more complex ASL instead, as they will use this throughout their lives.)
The focus of baby sign language is on needs and objects in baby’s everyday life, which match with the words you most frequently use to talk to baby. This lets baby share what they need, desire, or are interested in --- and helps the two of you bond in the process.
Today, we’ll break down how to start teaching baby sign language, including when you should start and which signs you should teach first.
When to start baby sign language?
Certified speech-language pathologist Jann Fujimoto, CCC-SLP, recommends starting to expose baby to signs when they're 4-6 months old. You'll do this by saying the word the sign represents at the same time as you make the sign.
Baby might not be able to sign on their own until around 6-9 months. But until then, they'll soak up what they see you signing and learn what the words represent. The more you repeat the signs you want them to learn, the easier it will be for them to start.
And 6-9 months is significantly earlier than the point most children learn to voice what they want or need.
As the American Academy of Pediatrics affirms, babies usually only start to "speak their mind" between 18 and 24 months of age.
So, starting baby sign language early can significantly narrow the communication gap --- by several months.
Will teaching baby sign language interfere with speech development?
Many parents are concerned that teaching baby sign language will delay their child's spoken language development. Rest assured that this isn't the case. In fact, one University of Southern California study showed that babies who learned baby sign language actually developed spoken language skills sooner than other babies.
What signs should you start teaching baby first?
For baby to reap the most benefits from baby sign language, make sure to teach them the signs for needs, objects, and people in their day-to-day life.
- What words do you use most with baby? What does baby need every day? Teach them the signs for those words.
- This way, baby will be best equipped to communicate with you.
- Good examples include signs for feeding, sleep, and playtime needs, plus signs for parents and caregivers.
Teach them each sign as you say the word.
Then do the action, give the or point to the person or object that corresponds with the sign.
- For example, say “eat” as you sign “eat,” then feed baby.
- Or, say “book” as you sign “book,” then hold up the book and start to read to baby.
- Or, say “play” as you sign “play,” then start playtime.
Here are some ideas for the first signs you should teach baby:
The sign for “eat” is the same as the sign for “food.” Flatten your fingers on top of your thumb, then bring your fingertips to your mouth.
This sign is the same whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding. Make both of your hands into fists, then quickly release your fingers from the fist and bring them back into fists. The sign should look like you’re squeezing and releasing something.
Pretend you’re holding a cup --- make a c-shape with your hand. Then, pretend to take a drink --- move the c-shaped hand up to your mouth.
You can also teach the sign “hungry” for any nursing, bottle, or food needs. Make a c-shape with your hand, and place that hand around your neck. Then, move the c-shaped hand down to your stomach.
Pinch your fingers and thumbs together on both hands, so your hands look like they’re making o-shapes. Then, bring the fingertips of your o-shaped hands together and apart a few times.
Place both hands up, on either side of your neck, with palms facing towards you. Then, turn your hands out so your palms face away from you.
Hold one hand on your forehead with fingers spread apart. Then, move that hand down to your chin, closing your fingers and thumb in (almost like a fist) as you move your hand down.
Fold your fingers down on both hands so only your thumb and little finger are still extended (you may know this as the “hang loose” sign). Hold up your hands in this sign with palms facing you. Then, twist your wrists back and forth a few times so your palms go away from you, then towards you again.
Pretend your hands are a book and you’re opening the book. Place your hands together, flat and palm to palm. Then, open your hands like a book, keeping your little fingers touching.
This sign lets baby tell you when they have a dirty diaper. Clench both hands into fists and stack the fists one on top of the other. Tuck the thumb of the bottom fist into the top fist. Then, move the bottom fist downward and keep the thumb up.
Make both hands into fists and move the fists up and down in front of your chest. This should look like you’re scrubbing yourself.
Spread the fingers of one hand apart. Face your little finger out and touch your thumb to your chin.
Spread the fingers of one hand apart. Face your little finger out and touch your thumb to your forehead.
If baby regularly stays with another caregiver, or regularly interacts with another family member, learn the baby sign language signs for these people too. Examples include grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, brother, and sister. To learn these signs, the Baby Sign Language dictionary is a great resource!
Animals and objects
If there are animals and objects that baby sees and hears the names of daily, consider teaching these signs after the “needs” and “people” signs.
For example, if you have a family dog, you might want to teach the sign “dog.” Or, if you regularly drive baby somewhere in the car, you might want to teach the sign “car.”
We won’t go over any of these types of signs here since they’ll be different from family to family, but the Baby Sign Language dictionary linked above will help you learn them.
Once you’ve introduced signs for everyday needs, people, animals, and objects in baby’s life, you can teach baby signs for other communication with you. These include signs like “please,” “thank you,” “sorry,” and “I love you.”
Flatten your hand and place it on your chest, palm in. Keep your thumb sticking out. Rub your hand in a circle on your chest.
Make a flat hand with your palm facing towards you. Bring your fingers to your chin, then pull them away from your chin. It’s almost like you’re blowing a thank-you kiss, except your hand’s positioned slightly lower.
Make a fist and rub the fist in a circle on your chest.
I Love You
Extend your thumb, index, and little finger out while keeping your middle and ring fingers down. With your palm facing out, rotate your hand side to side.
Summing things up: Benefits of baby sign language
As we’ve covered, teaching your baby sign language has several possible benefits:
- Lets baby communicate with you before they can speak
- Lessens frustration for both of you, since you can understand what baby needs or wants
- Helps promote baby’s speech and language development
- Strengthens your bond with baby
To reap these benefits, make sure to focus on teaching signs that are relevant to baby’s life, especially ones that correspond with their needs and the people and objects they encounter daily. Have fun!
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