Benefits of Baby Sign Language

by FS&TS

By Sarah S. Anderson, MS CF-SLP

I have many parents ask me about additional things they can be doing with their kiddo to help support their language growth.  The first thing I usually ask is "do you use Baby Sign?" 

For many parents the idea of learning American Sign Language seems really overwhelming, but using just a handful of signs can be a very beneficial way to support your little one's language.  In addition, little one's who use Baby Sign before they are able to talk have been found to develop more expressive language and articulation skills when compared with same aged peers (Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown, 2000).   Researcher Goodwyn et al. (2000) proposed that, just as crawling serves as a critical stepping-stone to walking, gestures serve the same purpose for speaking.

What is Baby Sign?

Baby Sign is defined as a way of facilitating communication with typically developing hearing infants by early exposure to sign language (Mueller, Sepulveda, and Rodriquez, 2013). Usually, there is a use of functional everyday signs (i.e. help, water, more, all-done) that are used/signed by a primary caregiver during good exposure times (e.g. feeding time and play time). The parent models the sign with the expectation of not having their little one sign it immediately, but introduce it as a symbol for an action and/or word. Over time, and repeated use of the sign by the caregiver within interactions, the child then discovers that they to can use the sign to carry meaning (Anderson, 2016).  

How to use Baby Sign and What to Expect?

It's important to start small.  Maybe just two signs until you are comfortable (e.g. more, all-done).  The best time to use Baby Sign is when you are on your kiddo's level and have their attention.  Try introducing it during feeding or play.  These times are great because, usually your little one is motivated and watching you.  The first few times you use a sign be sure you have their attention, and that you not only sign the word, but say the word as well. Try assisting your child in producing the sign 1-2 times so they can get the feel for the movement.  Over time, your child will go through a series of stages as you start using Baby Sign:

  1. They may watch you with intent
  2. You may start to see some hand movements that are similar to the sign you are making, HONOR THEM!
  3. Your child may start using the sign regularly and with purpose
  4. Your child may sign and start to verbalize the word too
  5. Eventually, your child may just use the word verbally (this is the goal but their is no rush to drop the sign)

Helpful Tips

  1. Get down to your child's level so it's easy for them to watch you model the Baby Sign you are using
  2. Be sure you have your child's attention before attempting sign 
  3. Use the sign while talking in a short simple sentence.  For example "you want MORE?"
  4. Repeat the sentence at least 2 times so the child can learn it more easily (e.g. you want MORE?, you want MORE?)
  5. Pick a time of day when you are both interactive like during meal time or play
  6. BE PATIENT.  A child needs to see/hear something many times before they can learn that vocabulary, so they may not use the sign the first time you try, and that is ok

Each child is unique and learns at a different rate.  When parents ask me "how long will it take before I start seeing them sign," I usually let them know that it may take a week, or it may take a month, but if parents are consistent and using the sign several times during their child's day you will be surprised by what your child will pick up.

Good Places to Reference for signs:

  • has a great dictionary online with videos of many signs
  • has a clear picture dictionary online for people to access
  • Baby Sign Time is available for purchase or can be found on YouTube