Why we did baby sign language (and how I'd suggest you do it differently)

Updated Jan 30 2016
thought i'd leave you with something cute....
By: cjanducci – CC BY 2.0

The back-story of how I ended up doing sign language with my son goes all the way back to a dirty warehouse in 1998. That's when I first met Melissa "Echo" Greenlee, a Deaf Seattleite. We used to rock out in front of the speaker stacks together (what, you've never heard of a deaf raver?), and she taught me how to finger spell using the American manual alphabet.

When Echo first started teaching sign language to hearing infants back in 2002 through her company Visually Speaking, I got all excited. It makes perfect sense, right? Before babies can speak, they can sign. A friend did sign language with her baby in 2004, and I was amazed at how calm her son was at expressing his needs.

"More," he'd sign, with no need for shouting and pointing.

I spent years biding my time, waiting for a moment when I'd have my own baby to do sign language with … and then last year, it was finally my turn.

Lemme tell you the story of how we did baby sign language, and what I did wrong.

I was perhaps a little over-eager: Andreas and I took baby sign language classes from Echo when Tavi was just three months old. Echo had warned us that we likely wouldn't see any results until at least six months old, but we couldn't help ourselves — she was leading an in-home workshop a block from our house, and we couldn't wait to sign up.

For six weeks, we met in a living room to work on our signs with Tavi. We learned basics like "milk" and "more" and "all done." We learned the signs for different foods (cheese, crackers, strawberries) and toilet stuff (diaper, poop, change), and animals (cat, dog, fish), and tons more. Most of the other kids were closer to a year old and walking, while Tavi could barely sit up. But it didn't matter! We were signing!

When the course was over, Dre and I committed ourselves to using signs with Tavi. I would prop Tavi up on the bed while I folded laundry and talk to him about the color of each garment. Every time I nursed him, I would sign "milk" and "all done." Dre would sign to him about music and dancing.

Months went by. Nothing happened.

My commitment waned. Dre kept signing, but I could only remember to do "more" when Tavi started eating. Tavi stared at me blankly. "More," I'd sign. "More!"

And then, finally, at 10 months old it happened. Inspired by cupcake frosting, Tavi finally got the "more" sign:

GRATIFICATION! Of course, then once he got this word down, he used it. A LOT. He was like a junkie, emphatically signing "MORE MORE MORE" even as food was going into his mouth. Then "more" became his sign for "HEY, I NEED SOMETHING HERE." It was his one word for everything. He would sign what I called "Sad More" when I changed his diaper.

Success! We had a "more" sign!

And then he started talking.

And I got even lazier.

And then Tavi didn't get any other signs.

Sad trombone.

Learn from me: I totally recommend baby signing. Highly. It's amazing to give your baby the tools to communicate when they don't yet have words.

But I recommend not being over-eager like me. Wait until your baby is at least six months old (and possibly even more like eight months old). You'll get results quicker, and hopefully won't get all slacker-y like I did.

  1. Thanks for this post! I've always wondered what was up with baby sign, like what was the purpose? It makes sense that it gives pre-verbal kids a method of expressing their needs/desires.

  2. I thought Baby Signing was a kind of fad but some teacher friends and early childhood ed friends told me it was the real deal. A fellow mom with a child the same age as my daughter shared a copy of Baby Signing Time with me. We started watching it when my child was 9 months old and she was signing within a month. Over the next year she learned around 150 signs. We've slacked off on it in the last six months (she's almost 2.5), but she still signs some words while simultaneously speaking them. Words like "milk," "more," and "potty." It was great to be able to have "conversations" with her before she was verbal. She rarely had a tantrum until she hit the "terrible twos" (not so terrible). I recommend the Signing Time DVDs – a lot of libraries have them. I know people who started earlier, but I found 9 months to be perfect for us.

    • My daughter is 3.5 now and I notice I use a lot of sign with her when we are having an emotionally intense moment. Try it! It can really diffuse things. It also allows me to sort of tell her things in public that would ordinarily make her sort of feel embarrassed or like she had to continue the "power struggle" because people are watching (sigh, drama queen!)

      Kids little brains sort of regress when they are emotionally flooded, and it can be easier to watch you sign "sorry, no, movie now, later, eat first!" than hear you prattle about it in our Adult Speech πŸ™‚

  3. This worked great with my niece and I'd like to do the same with my son. I think they started with her around a year, and it was great for them since she was not a big talker for a while. People kept saying "Oh she'll never learn to talk if she doesn't have to try, she'll just sign everything." Now she's 3 and has a better vocab than the average high school student. Ha ha.

  4. I didn't even consciously teach my little girl signs, she learned them from Baby Einstein videos, which feature Marlee Matlin. The one she learned the most signs from was called (wait for it) My First Signs. But there are several others that incorporate signing. She spoke very early and is highly verbal, so I never really drilled the signs, since I could understand her from a really young age. But she still signs "more," "all done," and a few she just really likes – "table," "blanket," "book," and I know I am missing a few others. It's kind of our 'party trick' to get her to do her signs. *blush* But for less verbal kids I imagine it is super helpful. I think the videos are really good, they got a bad rap in the media for some reason, but if you need 15-20 minutes then they are really the right speed and level for a baby-to-toddler.

  5. we were awful at being consistent about learning and teaching signs, but the idea of using her hands to communicate did kind of sink in and support her learning to talk with words it seemed. we very frustratingly felt like competent signing was really better suited for people who occasionally had the use of both hands, and we had the kind of baby that simply didn't much allow for that very much. she (and we) made up a few of our own, and she made up her own words, as well, and those were consistent enough to be understood if you knew her special language.

    • I was wondering about how to sign when you only have one hand.
      When I took sign classes in college they explained that you just use one hand. What ever hand you have free signs the important part (if it is a sign that has two distinctive parts) Or if one hand acts as the base in the sign your just pick a place in the air and let that spot be home.
      I have not tired this, but I like it in theory.

  6. I got all eager to try out baby sign language when my son was about 15 months, because he's not very verbally developed — and he gets so angry when he can't communicate what he wants/needs, and it breaks my heart. So I did what any lazy, broke mother would do: I got a book at a library.

    Sadly, after a couple enthusiastic forays into signing when I read, and signing when he was nursing or eating, and when he was getting a diaper change. Nada. When I signed "milk," he thought I was trying to pound it.

    After weeks of having given up on signing, he suddenly started signing "milk" while he said it. So now (at almost 2) I get "milk" and occasionally "more." Otherwise, he just gets angry when I don't understand him. I definitely wish we had started earlier; the communication barrier is pretty much the hardest thing between us.

    • the http://www.signingtime.com series! there are also Youtube clips of the songs. very, very valuable! many libraries also have the series for loan in their dvd collections.

      also, Happiest Toddler on the Block is a great book for a toddler with communication issues. cannot recommend reading this one enough- also have seen it at libraries!

  7. We got a book and started trying to teach our kid to sign when he was about 6 or 7 months old. We were eager and consistant for oh, about 3 weeks, and then we got lazy. But then suddenly, at about 10 months old, our little guy started signing. Milk, more, food, yes, no and all done were the only signs that he did consistantly, but how marvelous is it to have ANY communication at that age? Very! Combined with pointing and grunting and facial expressions, he was able to communicate a surprising amount.

    Now he's 2 and speaking in full sentences, so it certainly didn't impede his learning to talk. I'd totally reccomend it to parents, it's super helpful even if you only teach your kid 3-5 basic signs.

  8. My Daughter is 18 months and can sign like mad. Our method? Videos. Yep. I was determined to teach her myself and I tried to for a long time and got as far as a consistent "more". With the videos though, after the first time watching, she was signing. I was totally opposed to that type of learning, but after receiving the videos from a family member I gave them a try, and she instantly loved them. They have been an incredible tool, and even as someone (formerly) opposed to wee ones zoning out on tv, I say give it a try.

  9. We did sign language with my daughter. Now that she is 8 y.o. I still use the potty sign when she is in a group of her friends.

  10. We only taught Aspen the sign we felt were really necessary, but she picked them up and used them often. We started doing "potty" at 6 months, along with "milk". Later on we taught her "all-done", "more" (her favorite), "sleep", "bath", and "eat". She still uses eat and more, but everything else has been replaced by words.

  11. I'm the oldest of five siblings, and the middle three are hearing impaired. My parents started signing with the younger two that are hearing impaired when they were around nine months old. I know that situation is different from babies that can hear, but my siblings were able to communicate with my parents and me much earlier, and for a good two or three years, much better than other babies and toddlers their age.

    Because of the three that are hearing impaired, we also taught the youngest sibling signs around nine months old. He was able to communicate very well, especially since the hearing impaired sibs babysat quite often. My son will arrive sometime in early May, and my husband and I intend to teach him sign around eight or nine months old. We've learned that patience–or, sometimes, pure iron will–is what gets you through. It's not easy but the payoff is phenomenal.

    • Hi Nadia!

      Teaching your children to sign will become especially valuable for your brothers who don't hear well. I hope you will keep it up as they get older so they can communicate easier with their Uncles. As a Deaf person, I know how valuable this is to have more people in the family signing. Anything helps!

  12. We taught my brother and sister to sign when they were babies (I'm 10 & 13 years older than them) and it worked pretty well, especially with my brother. He would sign more, all done, milk, several different foods, and, his favorite, again. Every time we would make a funny face he liked or read him a story, he would sign for us to do it again and again. We really enjoyed it.

  13. Oh! How exciting! My daughter just turned 8 months, so I'm totally gonna check this out! I've been signing the alphabet to her all of her life, it's one of the major things that keeps her from crying when she's bored in the car! She always lifts up her hands and starts to move her fingers. It's really cute!

  14. I'm a librarian and I do our Babytime storytime program twice a week. I'm not a Mama, but I'd heard about baby sign language and in an effort to challenge myself and be more useful to the grown-ups of the babies who come to my babytimes, I now teach baby sign language in my Babytime. I did one session of it last year (about 8 weeks with some of the same signs every week and new signs themed with books and rhymes each week) and I'm doing it again right now! We've had an amazing response from parents about how their kids are actually picking it up and using it from our half-hour storytimes. Repetition is seriously the key though. I also have an information sheet that I've put together from information in a bunch of different baby sign language books, research studies about it, as well as useful websites to be used for baby sign language, and I pass these out to the grown-ups who come to storytime if they want them πŸ™‚ The best part is that storytime is free and anyone can come!

  15. I learned a lot of simple signs when I was working with nonverbal autistic children. It was great when I became a parent. Often kids will learn one word like more or help or milk and use it for everything. It works, who can blame them. I havent signed much since I have a hyper verbal child who began speaking at 8 months. But even if you do get lazy about it as they begin speaking more, you still are giving them language, which IMO, is the best thing you can give any child, ever.

  16. as much as i like reading the comments with the signing success stories, the thing i liked most about this post was the acceptance that despite the best of intentions and desires, it just didn't work out as planned. and that's ok! not everything that doesn't work is a failure. πŸ™‚

  17. I loosely tried it with my baby, which didn't work but what was really fun was teaching him a few signs when he was a toddler. He loved learning something new and thought it was cool to use his hands to say "car" or "I Love You".

  18. I absolutely can attest to the success and wonderment of sign language for babies. My son at age 2 was still not speaking any words or babbling, making no sounds, but getting very frustrated visually. After finally getting a referral and eval for speech therapy, the wonderful angel Ms. Susan came back and gave my son a voice. I still say to this day his first word was "more" even if it was in ASL, because it was the first time I could understand him. I cried because it was the most beautiful word I had ever heard. He learned up to about 30+ signs before finally learning how to verbally speak, and today we are teaching his younger brother signs.

    • I should add that he was recently diagnosed with high functioning autism (Aspergers) and now has the language equivalent of an adult, quite the opposite from his delayed start.

  19. For those outside the US, it is worth looking to see if there are babysign programs in your own country as well. In Australia there is a babysign version in Auslan, I can't remember off the top of my head who sells it though (Bilby publishing maybe? something like that). I think Baby Einstein is fabulous, but hey, may as well teach the kids their "native" language.

    • Australian Baby Hands are one mob that publish AUSLAN based signing for babies. I use it with my daughter who was a tad late with expressive language. Now she signs a LOT and she has started using words in conjunction with the sign – she'll sign milk and say 'mor?' or sign wee and say 'to?'.

  20. I very much DISLIKE baby sign. As a former preschool teacher, I cannot stand it. Of the few preschoolers(all age 3 and up) we had in our class that were baby-signers, ALL OF THEM refused to speak. They would sign to us even when their parents insisted that they could speak. How many moments of frustration and near miss bathroom disasters!

    You may think it's great at home, and I'm sure it is, but that baby won't stay home forever. The moment that child is in someone else's care (even for only an hour or two) they need to be able to make their needs known in a way we all can understand whether it be verbal or "typical" body language.

    • Wouldn't it be awesome if preschools started incorporating sign language? To me, that would be a much better solution. Then we'd all learn an additional language from very early on, and be able to communicate with people for whom signing is their predominant language.

      In my own experience, a lot of signs are VERY easy to understand–Jasper doesn't sign most of the time, but we do have "toilet" "hungry" and "sleepy" down. They're super easy to google, and Jasper picked them up within 10 minutes, so I'm sure most adults could.

    • My daughter has been signing for a year and a half (she's 2) and has been in the care of others and it's not been an issue. She's even potty trained and takes herself to the bathroom. Also, we didn't teach her "baby sign language" – we taught her American Sign Language. I hope you wouldn't judge all children who've learned to sign based on a couple of kids in your class.

    • how ridiculous! this has NOT been the experience of me and my mom-friends who are all deaf mothers of hearing children. our kids LOVE to talk, and love signing too. my daughter signed at 9 mo, and began speaking profusely at 16mo (over 80 words, 3 word sentences). None of the CODA (children of deaf adult) kids have any issues expressing themselves verbally to their hearing fathers or their hearing grandparents, etc. My own daughter who is now 3.5 is a bold and prolific speaker who will tell you "my underpants are red (signs red) and i might pee in them (signs potty) if i dont go RIGHT NOW (signs now)."

      Preschoolers often get SHY with adults, potty training is a new thing for most, they can feel pressure about it when in a class setting (i have seen this happen) and it can be anxiety provoking. Often when stressed, kids regress to a earlier form of language whether it be pointing and grunting or SIGNING – and they will do this especially with intimidating adults who refuse to try to come to THEIR level to communicate! I have been to several preschools, dropoff daycare places, etc, and they all have some baby sign posters on the wall for their staff! Potty, hungry, more, etc are NOT hard for an adult preschool teacher to learn and use! I am shocked to hear about a preschool teacher who turns their nose up at sign and would stubbornly refuse to communicate with a child who is having a vulnerable moment of needing it – these are CHILDREN prone to emotional swings of all kinds. Sign is part of the sum of their language skills not the total of it!

      Studies abound that prove you are wrong in surmising that signing hampers verbal language. This can only make me think you are not seeing things from the child's eyes and you aren't making a compassionate effort at communicating with the child.

  21. I SO <3 you for posting this. I am a super-nanny by trade and person with a (significant) hearing loss. All of my little ones sign, and they all have gigantic vocabularies and were all early talkers. We sign EVERYTHING, not just the standard stuff like "more, milk, all done, nap time, wait." but every single word that comes out of my mouth is coupled with its visual component. it is absoultly amazing to see a almost 1yo tell you "look at the squirl in the tree!" it really makes a caregiver more aware of how our sweet little ones processes their world.

    Now, my biggest issue with 'BABY signs' vs English signs…baby signs are made up for the most part, you will get to a point there the basis is no longer consistant and there is not a language base. English signs (including American sign language, Signed exact English, or pidgen) are all language based and have a consistancey that is infinate. So if your looking for a starting point pick up a ASL dictionary and pick your few basic signs you want to start with, then grow your vocabulary base with your kiddo. STAY AWAY FROM THE FICTION THAT IS BABY SIGNS.

    • Emma Kate. As a Deaf person myself, I couldn't agree more! Baby Signs are made up and serve no purpose after the child is speaking. It also causes confusion among caregivers who may be trying to meet the needs of many children at once (can you imagine if 8 infants in your care all had the different sign for Milk?). Which is why it's important to choose the right Baby Signing program to go with. There are many teachers who teach Baby Signing based on ASL or other signed systems of their country, By far, this is the better option to go with. So for those of you whom haven't started yet, be sure the book, DVD or instructor you are using is using signs based on ASL and not made up signs.

      • Out of curiosity, how can one differentiate the two? For example, Signing Time has been mentioned several times. Would that fall into the made-up or ASL category?

        • Most programs that are based on American Sign Language (ASL), mention it on their product. I know that Signing Time does not use made up signs and is based on ASL (although, you may find a sign or two that it Signed Exact English, which is not a formal language, but many Deaf individuals in the USA use it).

          With all this talk of ASL vs made up signs, I want to say that there are a some instances (mostly in the case when a child is special needs and doesn't have full use of their motor or vocal skills) where I encourage the parent to use a "modified" sign based on their child's level of functioning. Communication, no matter what the method, becomes much more important to children who rely on signs as their only way to communicate.

        • The best way to tell is to just check each sign online. Lifeprint is a great reference, it's done by a Deaf guy and he puts great cultural notes on each sign too.
          Many programs will have a few signs wrong, but as long as most of them are accurate it'll still work. A lot of the wrong signs are close, and with a baby's motor skills you might not even see a difference between the kid shown the wrong sign and the correct sign.
          Still, it's good to check the signs against a Deaf source, especially if it's a very common word (like more) or something you think will be a favorite of your child.

  22. I agree with Echo. usually, at least here in Ft Collins, Co, 'signing time' is baby-sign based…which is sad. if you find a program through your library or kid-centered establishment and they cannot tell you if they are using baby-sign or Sign Language then I suggest you turn tail and leave.

    • That's so strange because Rachel Coleman (who co-founded Signing Time with her sister) is very pro-ASL. Her daughter, who is in all the videos, is deaf and – now she's 13, I think. She definitely signs ASL. I wonder what is going on with these baby-sign based groups. Annoying!

  23. an interesting point also. Signs can me a warning for babies also, like a coping mechanism. I have a set of twins I have helped take care of since they were about 4 weeks old. The little boy (amazingly intelligent) he has always been freaked out by loud sounds. I'm talking anything from the coffee grinder to the doorbell. He loves to go to the local farm, knows all the animals names (sign and voiced word as close as a 1yo can get) the sound of the sheep baa or the cow mooing would make him physically shutter and cry his little heart out!! poor baby. I started telling them "its going to be noisy." I would sign NOISY really big, with both hands. and then run the garbage disposal and end with a big "all done' also in really big sign.
    in about a day he had picked up 'noisy' and the frantic crying was minimal. I have a fantastic video on my phone of him at the farm nose to nose with a big brown sheep and it baaaaaaahhhhh! and he didn't cry or shutter or run away, he signed a great big NOISY! its one of those things that will be a victory of mine forever :o) problem solved!!

  24. I'm a deaf mama, and I totally agree with the "wait until about 5-6mo" and don't expect anything until after 9mo. I did this with my daughter. I was pretty lazy about talking to her at all until around 5mo and she actually started, well, you know, behaving like a little person rather than a lump that had a 3 second attention span πŸ™‚ She started signing milk at 9mo. Her vocabulary exploded after that though and her verbal vocabulary went at even more dizzying pace, she was highly verbal by 16mo.

    My biggest recommendation is the entire SigningTime series. it goes ABOVE and BEYOND what many, many sign dvds or series do. its two seasons of 12 or 13 20 min episodes per season. And bonus features on the discs. Many libraries have this series, so check there, and there are also clips on Youtube. We spent the hard cash on the series and do not regret it, going go use it for our second child who is currently turning 5mo πŸ™‚

    The signing time series (and baby signing time series) has super catchy songs, actual real people (not freaking puppets) and good closeups of all the kids and adults signing.

    Yes, its hard for hearing parents to consistently use sign but it can really help kids during tantrums because their verbal skills deteriorate during emotional floods, and sometimes its easier to concentrate on your few signs to them than a long stream of words. I also use it a LOT with my daughter in busy or loud places, she seems to zoom right in on my signing and I can dole out the discipline better (and allow her to save face if i just wordlessly sign NO vs yell it πŸ™‚

  25. As a person who knows sign language the data says that children with deaf parents have better communication then hearing parents, because they can voice themselves using sign language. I recommend it to all parents. But yes, they start using it around 6months. I'm going to bookmark you fun reading.

  26. I'm so thrilled that this is a thing now! My mama taught me some ASL basics when I was just a wee one (I'm in my twenties now) with this exact line of reasoning — with a pre- or barely-verbal kid, signing is easier than speaking.
    More than two decades on, I'm not quite as smooth with it as once I was, but what I remember has let me reach out to deaf people who I've encountered in two of my jobs (waitressing and secretary-ing). My mom was just looking to make her life easier, but it's helped me connect with people in my adult life! I think that's pretty cool. (Again, I'm far from fluent, but all the deaf people I've ever met have been very gracious about my efforts.) I think that nothing that helps people communicate is ever wasted.

  27. Okay, I'll admit it: I don't have children. I've just been checking out the site because I love what I've seen of the Offbeat Empire, and I have an interest in kids. So no, I've never tried to teach signs to my own child and if people feel that that makes me unqualified to comment here, I'll understand. I just thought I'd comment because I'm a CODA and former Deaf school teaching assistant and I thought my opinion might be useful.

    I began signing at four months old. My sister began signing at a similar age. First signs were the classics — "more" and "milk" — and then we expanded from there. My sister started speaking at a "normal" age. I didn't speak until I was about two or three years old, and then started using full sentences all at once. (Apparently, this is considered a sign of a smart kid, and happens with kids who don't use sign language as well as with those who do. I never had behavioral or developmental problems and always did very well in school, ESPECIALLY in language arts. My sister, while also smart and good with languages, is more skilled in biological sciences and visual art.) So you see, a.) I don't think you started signing too early at all; some kids CAN sign earlier than 6 months and even if they don't, they're still learning while they sit there like little lumps, b.) learning to sign doesn't delay their speaking, and c.) even if their speaking is delayed, it's not necessarily a problem. Just keep an eye on things. Different kids develop in different ways.

    Also, I agree with the STRONG RECOMMENDATION that everyone (in the United States) stick with ASL and not made-up baby sign programs. Even if you're using simple one-word statements and/or have no intention of continuing to use sign language as your child gets older, it's still to your child's advantage to be using words from a real language as opposed to a pretend one.

  28. You can sign with one hand there are many people that lost a hand or have baby in their hands so they can only sign with one hand, I do it all the time if I'm carring something the person understands.

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