How baby sign language is giving my toddler a sense of confidence and independence

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Katey Sleeveless
By: butupaCC BY 2.0

The other day, my year-and-a-half old son eagerly pointed up at the deodorant on the bathroom shelf. Thinking he would take the lid off and wind up buried under a sea of coconut oil and arrowroot, I did not at first oblige. But he was calmly insistent. He brought the flat palm of his hand against his chest, rubbed it back and forth, and said while signing, "Peas?" Because he was so dang cute and had asked so nicely, I smiled and handed him the container. Without removing the lid, he lifted each arm and rubbed the top onto both underarms. Then he smiled, and handed it back up. D'aw.

A few days later, just before our late morning walk, Lio signed "all done" by shaking both open hands parallel to the ground. He made the motion for "jacket" by bringing both hands up his arms as if putting on a coat, and then tried to wiggle out of his sweater. I explained that he needed a jacket in order to greet the cool weather outside. He was persistent, and continued removing his sweater on his own, so I helped him take it off. He then pointed up to the wall at his corduroy blazer with the hyper emphasis of an eighteen-month-old, and again signed jacket. Then, please. Oh — he was all done with that jacket. He wanted to wear a different one!

Thank goodness for baby sign language. I could see us experiencing a good amount more frustration due to miscommunication if the little mini hadn't mastered the thirty-odd signs he now uses regularly. His signing vocabulary not only helps connect him to the world (pointing and signing "airplane" as one flies overhead, or when he sees one in a book, for example), but allows him to continue to assert his independence in super healthy, tantrum-less ways. He still wants what he wants when he wants it sometimes, but seems pretty willing to give us the extra minute to figure out what he's trying to say, since it ends up more beneficial for him, too. And, hey — you're a year and a half old, and you want to wear a different jacket, and you say "please?" Well, hell, yeah!

After watching Baby Signing Time DVDs since his very early days, Lio began signing at about ten months. He began with "eat," "water," and "hat," then progressed to more intricate nouns like "grass," "sun," and "baby." I'll never forget the first day he heard the theme music to Baby Signing Time from the next room. He shouted, "BAYBEEEE!" and came hurtling into the room in his walker while swinging his cradled arms back and forth to sign "baby."

I had taken sign language courses in my youth, and my partner was a newbie. We were both thrilled to pick up on the simple signs right along with our son. We made sure to incorporate the signs into everyday life by forming the sign while repeating the word several times. "All done" was particularly helpful from the get-go — instead of suddenly clearing his tray with one swoop or screaming to alert us that he wanted to move on with his day, a quick "all done" sign would have him mobile in moments, without the mess or frustration.

At about fifteen months, Lio's signing vocabulary suddenly skyrocketed, seemingly overnight. His knowledge had surpassed ours — we had to start watching the Baby Signing Time episodes along with him again to figure out what he was saying!

Aside from making it easier to communicate, easier to assert toddler independence, and flexing those little baby brain muscles, the obvious pleasure Lio receives from learning and then connecting that knowledge to something concrete in life is so, so cool to watch.

Now, Lio makes just about every sign right along with the program. He can point to a part of his body and tell us that it "hurts," he can apologize by saying "sorry," and he knows how to let us know if there's a "bug" in his room. Aside from making it easier to communicate, easier to assert toddler independence, and flexing those little baby brain muscles, the obvious pleasure Lio receives from learning and then connecting that knowledge to something concrete in life is so, so cool to watch. Learning how to communicate with us in a relatively uncomplicated way has made him so happy. I can tell it is building his self-esteem and showing him just how capable he is — which, as a parent, is fascinating to behold, especially at an early age.

Every time Lio signs for the dog, or puts two signs together — like "dog" and "water," then points at the dog's dish to indicate it's time to complete his chore for the day — I just melt. Or when he signs "please" and "shoes," then sits down so I can take his shoes off before hopping up to scuttle off to try on a pair of dad's sneakers? That's baby gold, right there.

The other night, Lio asked to brush his teeth by making a finger-motion like a toothbrush across his mouth. I set him up on a stool in front of the sink. Delighted, he stood in the bathroom, vigorously cleaning his choppers with genuine purpose and delight. I told him, "You're so smart — it must be easier to brush your teeth when you're smiling so big."

  1. When I worked as a nanny, the youngest child had a hearing impairment (that was made better with cochlear tubes over time). Since he had not been able to quite hear what others were saying, it was more difficult for him to learn to speak right away. Baby sign was a lifesaver! Soon, he and his older sister had come up with signs only they knew, and his sister became a very important (if not sometimes slightly biased) translator. While the vast majority of the signs they used were standard baby-signs, it was adorable to watch them modify and create their own signs for things like "hey! firetruck siren!" and especially loved blankies/stuffed animals.

  2. We've been contemplating baby sign for cleatus-the-fetus when he arrives, and this story has made my mind up for me.
    It must be wonderful to be able to have your toddler communicate so freely without the whiny grunting noises they normally have to use out of desperation.

    I'll have to add those DVDs to our registry

  3. The biggest vindication for hauling my miserable 3-month-old to signing classes came much later when he was crying inconsolably on the kitchen floor and I asked if anything hurt. He signed "hurt" at his mouth, and voila, there was a tooth coming in, and mommy could fix things with a bit of baby Advil.

    ESL FTW!

  4. Wow. This story makes me feel *so* mad at myself that I haven't taken the time to help my son communicate with us – especially because he is in a bilingual environment so I know his words are going to come a lot more slowly. Also, we have 3 separate caregivers (us plus two sets of grandparents) so I think I've been reluctant to try and teach them too.
    We have Baby Signing Times – I'm going to bust that out TODAY.

    • Hey there fellow mama, don't beat yourself up! Not sure how old your son is, but it sounds like there's time if you want to work on signing. Personally I think even more important than the signing itself is the attitude that they're communicating even before they can talk.

      From my own experience, we thought we'd do a lot more sign than we did, then, well, life happened and we didn't get super into it. I think we avoided a lot of frustration with just "more," "nurse," and "no." And even with a little bit of exposure, he was making up signs for things like "screwdriver."

      • I could literally not agree more. Once our daughter learned "more" and "all done," we were set. Her verbal language started filling in when those reached the end of their highest usefulness. (But she does still sign "more" while saying it when it's something she *really* wants.)

  5. We always wanted to do sign and did with our daughter, but she wasn't really picking much up – she had a few signs (more, eat, all done – very helpful!), but wasn't really interested beyond that. Then about 2 weeks ago (she's 18 months old) or so we checked out a Baby Signing Time DVD from the library and it's just insane how quickly she's learned. We've tried to avoid TV and video-based learning, but our daughter is learning this stuff so quickly and having so much fun doing it. In 2 weeks, we've watched 2 volumes of the Baby Signing Time several times and she has about 30 signs now that she loves to use. It makes our lives so much easier when she can tell us what she wants and it keeps her frustration level to a minimum.

  6. So sweet! I especially liked the point that if they have something to do with their hands, to communicate, it can prevent them from being destructive as a means of communication. We used books and eventually Baby Signing Time, and neither had much effect. (Although she loved BST, and would ask to watch it even though she was talking like crazy and wouldn't sign much.) She mostly learned from me demonstrating. Like saying, "You want more?" while signing more, and then making her sign before giving her more. At 3 she almost never signs, but occasionally something will pop up, like brushing her chest while emphatically saying "please," which is fascinating, cognitively.

  7. This is not meant at all to be a criticism, just an honest question. My son is three months old so we are not quite at this point yet, but could be soon. I have read some articles that doing the baby sign language can actually slow down verbal development. My pediatrician agreed. Because toddlers are able to sign their basic needs, they don't have the urgent desire to pick up words and speech patterns. Thus, a slowing of verbal development. We are leaning towards not doing it for this reason. We have a friend whose 18 month old daughter signs well, but shows zero proclivity for language. I was just wondering if you or others have thoughts on this.

    Thanks for sharing your family story with us!

    • My son gets so incredibly frustrated with not being able to tell us what he wants and it totally destroys me. Truthfully, I wouldn't care if he wasn't "as verbal" as his peers, as long as he was able to tell us what he needs!

    • Our understanding based on research was that signing definitely does not inhibit speech development. Hopefully someone with the time and inclination can post some resources with info on this. Anecdotally, our 17 month old son both signs and speaks well – he has at least 40 words and about the same number of signs.

    • I have nothing to back this up besides my own musings, but I imagine that one reason it's been said that teaching baby sign language could slow down verbal development COULD be that parents rely on the signs too much and forget to continue to speak to their children. We never tried signing with our son, but I have known people who did, and it seems to me that it would be easy to be focused on figuring out what the problem is by trying to read a sign — or by asking your child to ONLY sign — and forgetting to also verbally communicate. Like, I'm a huge chatterbox (to the point that when my son was an infant, I would narrate our like, grocery shopping trips to him), but I can imagine myself being so invested in signing if we HAD tried it that I might forget to keep a steady verbal dialogue going.

      Other than that, I can't think of any reason why it would hold back verbal development — we meant to get into signing when our son was an infant so we'd have a way to communicate with him. He's four now so it's not a big deal, but I feel like many a tantrum would have been prevented if we had been able to communicate more effectively with him between 10 and 18 months.

      JUST MUSING! ­čÖé

    • Think of it as like being bilingual – they are exposed to both verbal (e.g.: English) and sign (e.g.: Baby Sign) language modalities, and bilingual children do sometimes show 'delays' compared to monolingual children in vocabulary acquisition (because they are learning and assimilating two language systems). But bilingualism is globally normal and actually very advantageous, and those children quickly catch up as toddlerhood progresses. Any 'delay' is not permanent.

      This is not to say that the baby sign mentioned here is a full sign language – of course it's not.

      • This would be my guess. I don't have any actual data on the impact of baby sign on speech development, but my educated guess would be that, if it did delay speech development, their speech would probably catch up by the time they were a few years old at most and there would probably not be any lasting difference.

        After all, hearing children raised by deaf parents who grow up with ASL as their home language still learn to speak English with native fluency.

        • As an educator, this would be my guess too. An example for primary school would be this: 6 months makes a big difference in a tot's education in the early years. By age 10, they've easily caught up to their peers. I can tell who's born at the start/end of the intake when I'm in a yr 1 classroom, but not by yr 3.

          I think there's research, but I don't know where to find it.

          • As an English as a Second Language teacher, I agree. It is my experience that bilingual children typically start speaking later than their monolingual peers, and have trouble separating the languages as they are building their vocabulary for both. Although that view has been challenged in studies of bilingual children. However, these children usually catch up to their peers quickly and have an easier time learning multiple languages as they get older. It can be a huge benefit for them in the long run.

            Here is a link to the Center for Applied Linguistics. They have a great study with references for other professionals in the field. http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/raising-bilingual-children.html

      • QoB, just a note about your last statement – Baby Signing Time is actually ASL, and we plan to continue teaching our son ASL as long as he is interested in the hopes that he will use it as a second language. We've avoided "baby signs" and stuck with ASL for this reason as well.

        • Ah, ok, thanks for the clarification. From what I'd previously read about baby signing books and DVDs etc., it sounded like isolated vocabulary words and not a full grammatical sign language like ASL.

    • I have two family stories.
      My nephew learned baby sign language and he had no delay in his verbal development. He is now a very bright 6 year old who is reading at probably a grade 2 level.
      My brother and sister in law did not bother to teach their second son any sign language. He had no speech delay but he is certainly throws more tantrums and is far more 'destructive'.
      However, these differences can't be wholly attributed to learning sign language or not. Nephew #1 was taken care of during the day by my brother for his first year because he couldn't find a job and sister-in-law had one. Nephew #2 was taken care of by my sister-in-law because my brother, at that point, had a good full time job. My brother is very calm and my sister in law is not. So, there's that.

      Story #2: My cousin was taught baby sign language. There was no delay in speech (if anything, she was more chatty than most kids) and she is very bright. My other little cousin (younger sister by 18 months), was not really taught too much sign language. She did seem to have a delay in speech and even what she -drew- seemed to be behind (just scribbles for the longest time).
      People hypothesized that Cousin #2 just didn't talk because her sister talked so much! But who knows!
      Cousin #2 is now an outgoing, chatty, hilarious 7 year old. Cousin #1 is more shy but still very smart and loves reading and writing.
      What seems to be the trend, though, is that the second child seems to miss out on learning the signs that child #1 was diligently taught!

    • I found a decent article with links to research articles. It seems that there is no evidence that learning sign language is associated with speech delay, but it is uncertain whether sign benefits speech development (which is something you may see touted on baby sign language sites). It might be worth reading through some of the referenced research to help you decide which path will be best for your family. http://www.child-psych.org/2009/04/will-teaching-my-baby-to-sign-delay-his.html

    • The most verbose two year old I ever cared for during my years as a nanny was also the most prodigious signer. Speech happens at various ages for all kids, regardless of whether they sign or not. Nearly all of the children I cared for learned at least a few basic signs and all seemed to progress verbally just as well as their non-signing pals. I'd love to see an actual study of this, looking at the children every three months from 3 mos to 10 yrs and seeing what the signing does/doesn't do. And regardless of whether it slows verbal communication or not, it is so undeniably empowering for very young children to 'say' something and be understood.

      Also, I've known plenty of children who weren't taught to sign and didn't speak til after 18 mos, and they all talk just fine now. Kids develop verbal skills at various ages, there is a physical as well as a mental development at play here and it doesn't happen on a neat and tidy timeline. Are there any studies showing late acquisition of verbal skills correlates to any sort of ongoing issues? Aside from children who have crossed the critical age without being exposed to language, of course.

    • i had heard the same thing about baby signs delaying verbal language,so we started out planning only to do three or four signs for the things we thought would be most helpful (milk, diaper, eat, all done). my son really caught on to signing very quickly so we just continued to add a few more as we thought they'd be helpful – things like more, play, please, outside, water, thank you…

      he's just about to be 18 months and he has SO many words. he parrots everything we say, has over a hundred independent words, and is starting to form sentences ("i like to draw!" – d'aw!!!). because of this, we've started slacking off on signing, but i have noticed that sometimes teaching him the sign for something is the action that kicks off his spontaneous memory of the word – so, for awhile, he would parrot us when we asked him to say "please" or "thank you", but once we showed him the sign for those words, he really started to use them independently without prompting, with and without signing at the same time. (and let me echo the author and say how darn irresistable a toddler looking at you and asking/signing "please?" is)

      so, that doesn't prove anything at all, but it's been my experience that signing has actually been beneficial to verbal language in our case. it's probably totally a "your mileage may vary" situation. i talk to my kid A LOT , i repeat things a lot, i don't dumb it down too much, i do the signs while i'm talking and don't try to force it on him – it's mostly a fun extra way to communicate. and i think it does help cut down on tantrums. sometimes he can't tell me what he wants, but when he says/signs "please" or "more", at least i know he wants something, and not that he hurts or is starving or has poop, and i can respond accordingly.

      anyway, for anybody who is considering signs, i highly recommend the Monica Beyer book Teach Your Baby to Sign. it's really clear and has fun words like "giraffe" plus the basic, actually useful ones.

    • not a pediatrician — yet — but the way we're learning things in medical school and consensus from colleagues (hardly peer-reviewed, but professional anecdotes) is that things even out in the end. both verbal and sign language stimulate the language centers of the brain to develop and mature, and *that's* where you'd be concerned about delays. slower to be verbal when there's another language around, sure, but kids are generally on track *developmentally* — which means, using & responding to language age-appropriately, whichever modality (verbal or signing) it may be.

    • I felt like signing let my son hold off on speaking a lot until he was really confident about it. He wasn't delayed in the least, but he didn't put a huge amount of effort into saying words we knew he could say when he could sign more accurately about what he was thinking. At 18 months, he had said plenty of words, but didn't choose to speak often, but by his second birthday he was speaking more than signing. The only downside I can see with this (now that he's long past signing and is very, very, very verbal) is that it might have fed into a family tendency toward perfectionism. Signing seems to have only had a positive long-term influence on his verbal ability and his vocabulary.

    • It may depend on the child. My sister has taught both of her children signs, and they both seem very vocal beyond their age. My nephew will be three this week, and he talks up a storm. Since he's the main toddler that I hang out with, I'm always startled to meet other toddlers his age that barely know any speech at all. Maybe the problem is the parents who only use the signs and don't work on advancing their childrens' speech because they can understand the signs well enough.

  8. I love baby sign. I was exposed to the idea over 10 years ago as a nanny and I have used it with every family since. Some kids picked it up and used signs regularly with just their nanny (me) teaching them. Other kids didn't pick it up, even when their parents were invested in baby signing, too. The differences in kids' learning and interests fascinate me! Now I have my own 13 month old and she signs at least 22 signs and understands more. I've just taught her what I've learned from a book (Joseph Garcia's Sign with your Baby), but I would consider videos to increase both our signing vocabularies.

  9. Signing was so incredibly helpful for my daughter from 10-20 months. She said a lot but signed more. Then her spoken vocab skyrocketed and we hardly sign anymore (she is 24 months). But we are looking forward to picking it up again in a couple of months because the baby will be ready then. I really like how signing helps me to know what she likes and is into.

  10. I can sing nothing but praise for teaching my child sign language. At 2.5 he was still saying nothing. No babbling (ever), nothing. After 2 months of starting speech therapy, he "spoke" his first word to me. I cried. I absolutely cried. I am tearing up now just thinking about it.

    Signing has been so helpful during those moments when the child is very upset and just can't get the words out. It's been a conversation starter when people see me out with my child, signing to him. For the record, my kids now speak far beyond their peers (high functioning autism for the older one, moderately autistic for the younger one), but we still use sign at times. It triggers conversation for them sometimes.

  11. I grew up with fluid behind my ears that they didn't catch until I was 5 (could be that we were in another country, who knows). I was 95% deaf so my speech wasn't great and only my mother and sister knew what I was saying. I wasn't taught sign language but I did have an affinity to use my hands (no I'm not Italian ;p ) so I think once my family knew/learned my movements it helped. It would have been nice for a universal sign language (again, in a different country, military family) to be taught to me and to others, maybe they would have caught my hearing issues a lot sooner. Today, the last time my hearing was checked after getting tubes in, I was only 5% deaf and you'd never know it. I also dont remember much signs because you don't use, you lose.

    I will be teaching Turtle how to sign once he makes his debut. So its nice to find a product kids seem to like. Thanks for sharing!

  12. How do you handle other (especially occasional) caregivers? E.g. grandparents, babysitters, etc… I don't have kids yet, but I used to babysit a kid who knew baby sign language, and it was sometimes frustrating for us both, since I couldn't understand what he was trying to tell me. The parents ran me through a few basic signs before they left, but the kid sure was a lot more fluent than I was! So, thoughts on how to make it work with other caregivers?

    • We had our son's grandparents sit down and watch Signing Time with him a few times as part of their babysitting time. Otherwise, they learned some of his signs the way they understood some of the words we could when he was first speaking, and I translated a lot for everyone. Even if someone knew a lot of ASL, a baby/toddler's versions of the signs usually look different from the official signs, and change/improve as they pass through developmental stages, so I would have still had to translate. But overall, any signs another caregiver can learn to identify are going to be a positive addition in comparison to the child not signing. Even though they couldn't understand all of his signs, the grandparents sure loved our son's signing. It was so awesome for everyone involved.

  13. My 13 month old is way into baby signs now. He signed "Mommy" as early as six months, which was awesome. Now, he easily lets us know if he's hungry, thirsty, has to use the potty, etc. He also diligently informs us every. single. time. he hears a dog bark. Also, that he loves hats. It's so fun, and he is so proud that he can effectively communicate with us. For those concerned about verbal development, we always say the word when demonstrating a sign, and he does too. He says about 20 words and does about 12 signs. Highly recommend.

  14. Is there a relationship between the baby sign language, and American Sign Language? I would love my child to be fluent with ASL, and I don't know if starting with baby sign language, then switching to ASL could be confusing.

    • Yes, as Katey mentions below, Baby Signing Time is ASL. Some baby signing programs are not, but I know for sure that one is. There are also lots of free signing libraries online where you can watch the ASL sign for a certain word. We've found those very helpful.

  15. FYI – Baby Signing Time teaches American Sign Language.

    Thanks for the amazing comments on this post!
    The questions, research, and beautiful stories and accounts of child raising were a joy to read this morning.

  16. hehe, just a funny story from another perspective:

    my friend is a nanny, and the twins she looks after use the baby sign language, and it has crept into her everyday speech as well- as in, when she is saying NO to someone or something, or during a story, she will consistently sign the NO as well. its funny, i love it.

    • it has been years since I was a nanny, and every now and then I will still catch myself using signs in regular speech! not super often anymore, but occasionally. it's good to hear that I am not the only one.

  17. I love this post. We've been using ASL with our son since he was a few months old. Now, at 21 months, his signing vocabulary is so large that we often have to pause to think about what he's trying to tell us. We stuck with the programs that use ASL, because if he chooses to continue with signing, we'd love for him to have that as a second language. He absolutely LOVES the flash cards from BST and will carry them everywhere. Not a day goes by that he doesn't want us to run through them at least once. I'm pretty sure no one signs "fish" as enthusiastically as our toddler. ­čÖé

  18. I had a thought, because I want to use baby signing time for my children and I want more than one sort of close together. Has anyone seen their older children using it to communicate with their younger siblings? I feel like that possibility would open up a child's world at a very young age where most of their interaction is with their mother or father.

    • yes! The family I was a nanny for started using signing because their youngest had a hearing impairment & needed help communicating. His sister was older than him by almost two years, and was a total chatterbox, but enthusiastically learned signing when her brother did. I truly believe this strengthened their bond as siblings, not to mention it noticeably reduced bickering & jealousy. they signed together & developed their own signs for certain things… which then of course the sister would happily translate for the rest of us (she really loved having a role with such power!) so we could know what these new special signs meant.

      Granted, the family didn't start introducing signs until the hearing impairment was discovered, which wasn't until their son was already nearing two years old. So, he wasn't necessarily given the ability for super early communication, but there was no denying that there was something special about the way he & his sister were able to communicate once they started signing. I don't really know how to explain it, but you could tell that for them, signing to each other was something extra special.

      I can't say that this is how it would work for all siblings, but for these two, it was great.

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