Sign language for hearing infants and toddlers

Recently I found a brochure in my Maternal, Child Health centre which was advertising classes to teach you and your baby how to use sign language to communicate before it can speak (as young as 6 months). I was quite intrigued. I did wonder if teaching babies to sign might have adverse effects on normal speech development, but the things I can find on the web all say that there shouldn’t be any problem with this at all (though perhaps they all have a baby sign language video to sell so who knows…)

So if you feel a strong desire to find out what your baby is thinking or needing then perhaps the two of you learning a few signs won’t go astray.

Here’s a photo dictionary of signs you could try (candy?? you’re asking for trouble if you teach them this one in my opinion!) or you could make up your own. The recommended dose is to start with between three to twelve signs and see how you go from there. When you are doing each activity make sure you show your baby the sign and eventually your baby will understand and make the sign themselves. Consistency is the key – use the same sign each time you do the same activity. It might take weeks or even months but eventually they should cotton on.

Some resources:

Signing with your baby has some great tips, how-tos and the afore mentioned excellent photo dictionary – ultimately trying to sell products and classes (FYI) but a really imformative site.

An ABC (US) news health report on baby signing.

Comments on Blogging Baby from parents and carers who have tried it. Definitely worth reading through.

Baby Signs website (via Blogging Baby)

38 Responses to “Sign language for hearing infants and toddlers”

  1. nonlineargirl

    A quick note in response to your concern about adverse effects: my husband and I started teaching our daughter a few key signs around 6 months. (Change – for diaper change, more – as in do you want more? and a couple others) She quickly picked up the change, and later started using “more” at about 10 months (she uses it to mean “I want” but still). She started talking at about 11 months and at almost 13 months has a spoken vocab of about 7 or 8 words.

    That’s a long way of saying that in our experience with our daughter – and with watching friends’ kids – signing does not delay speech.

  2. Elaine

    We’ve signed with both our kids and it’s a wonderful tool. Makes life way easier with a non-speaking toddler until they start making meaningful words!

  3. terri mac

    We’ve done signing with our daughter, now 19 months, and we’ve LOVED it! I feel that her frustration level is lower than it would be if she couldn’t sign. She can tell us when she’s hungry, thirsty, tired, hurt… no guessing which one it is! We took no classes, just did it ourselves using the fantastic ASL visual dictionary put out by Michigan State University.

  4. Jessica Hanson

    When my niece was a baby, we taught her some basic signs.It was amazing! Being able to express herself made her a much happier, calmer baby which made for a calmer, happier auntie. 🙂 It really helped us out.

  5. kirstencan

    the dvd series ‘signing time’ is the best one i’ve found by far – and they say the words over and over, so it’s good for speech as well.

  6. nancy

    All of my language development classes stress that teaching sign language does not in anyway inhibit a child from learning spoken language. I would suggest starting with signs for the things your baby tends to cry or whine for most. I also like the videos for bigger kids called Signing Time. The videos are cute and have catchy music that doesn’t make my ears bleed like most other children’s programming.

  7. Michelle

    I did this (after reading the Baby Signs book) with my first born, and it really worked well. She could tell me the difference between hungry and thirsty, if she was hot or cold, things like that. And I had the same reservations (whether it would inhibit speech development), but, really, now I can’t ever get a word in edgewise. I think the signs are a great idea, and I regret forgetting about them with my second child. Thanks for the reminder. I really do try very hard not to let my second get shortchanged…!

  8. Kirsten

    I’ve been trying to sign with my son (as have a few friends who have boys) none of us have been successful. I notice that most of the comments here are all from parents of girls…. is this a coincidence….?

  9. Alicia A.

    We started with a few basics: milk, more, please, help, eat. And now our Nora (18 months) uses them all of the time. And now that she understands what she’s doing (saying) she learns new signs in a snap.

    It’s very helpful!

  10. Neena

    I signed with my daughter. We went to classes. She started to talk early so she never really used the signs to communicate but I think the signing as well as saying words helped her learn words more quickly. I will definitely do it with my second child.

  11. Matthew Miller

    We’ve been doing sign with our daughter since she was about 9 months old. We started around 7, but it took a long time to catch on — we were about to give up, when all the sudden she was signing “more” like crazy, and within a few months we were doing dozens of signs.

    We do feel like maybe she would have started with spoken language a bit earlier, but she certainly started saying spoken words within the normal accepted timeframe, and it didn’t really matter, since we were able to communicate so well with the signs.

    At almost 18 months, she knows almost a hundred signs (most of which she actually uses regularly), which I understand to be pretty typical. And she uses about fifty spoken words, some alone and some in conjunction with the sign. The combination is helpful, as many of her signs are somewhat imprecise, and like all children first learning to talk, many of her words are too — but together it’s a lot more unambiguous.

    Um, it may sound like I’m bragging, and of course I’m proud of my kid, but really, anyone can do this, and I really recommend it because it’s so fun.

    The best resource I have found by far is the Baby Signing Time DVDs from — it’s $50 for the set of two DVDs, but it’s some of the best $50 we’ve spent on baby gear. We generally restrict TV viewing, but these are quite good, *specifically* educational rather than vaguely “will raise your child’s IQ!”, and by definition, encourage interaction. Plus, the production values are high and the original songs are not bad as music for kids goes. (You *will* have them stuck in your head, so that’s important.)

    I’m not sure if the Baby Signs program linked to above uses real ASL…. The Signing Time DVDs I mention do. That may or may not be important to you — some of the ASL signs are kind of hard for a toddler, but it’s nice to know that you’re laying the foundation for a lifelong skill.

  12. carrie

    I taught my son two signs, but they were really useful- he used “more” and “all done” and used them well before he used those words. He’s 2 1/2 now. I have a good friend who teaches infant sign language classes, and I will definitely do more signing with my newborn.

  13. stacey

    Kirsten: we signed with my son from 6 mos, he finally started signing back at 12 mos, and it was great. A sign for breastfeeding, general food, drink, more, “all done,” and a few object words too much of the frustration out of his second and third years, and he still occasionally signs when he knows I can’t hear him/am not paying attention.

  14. Makayla

    I taught my son sign and was pretty wishy washy about it at first. But we kept doing it whenever I remembered. He eventually learned milk, more, cracker, food and more. It really helped with frustration and these were words that he actually learned to say first. It was amazing the first time his little hand squeezed the milk sign. I melted and was amazed at my 10ish month old babies capabilities.

  15. QueenMum

    Signing for communication only works if your baby wants to communicate. Some kids, like my oldest girl who now at 3 talks well, but much less than her sister at 1. She just didn’t care about talking. I tried to sign with her but she never, and I mean never looked at me when I talked to her, she had other, much more important projects to work on, like figuring out how to climb to the top of the slide, or getting onto the sofa by herself. BTW she did learn to talk on schedule — sort of (1st word shortly after 1).

  16. Rachel

    My family also has loved the Signing Time ( videos. We started watching before my younger daughter was talking much, and the signs came in handy for her as she learned speech. My older daughter (3 when we started watching) also has loved the videos and learning the signs–it has been fun to do as a family.

  17. Tamara

    We taught my son several signs in coordination with a program at his day care. I agree that it really helped with his frustration with not being able to tell us what he wants. He’s almost two now and talks up a storm, but he still uses the signs for “more” and “please” as he says the words. I’m expecting another baby, and I plan to do this again with the new one!

  18. beckie

    I like the idea of baby signs…
    our experience wasn’t so pleasant…but it was funny.
    Our third child had an ear splitting scream. This scream would be unleashed unsuspectingly at any moment, anytime, anywhere. Needless to say we worked long and hard to get him to stop doing that!
    So we decided to try teaching him some signs. The first one…”more”. He caught on sooo fast! One evening,we were sitting to a leisurly, quiet dinner. Then he gives off one of his ear splitting, high pitched shreiks. I turn around and see him grinning from ear to ear and signing “more”. Evidently, he had been signing and nobody was paying attention. Smart kid. I am so glad he learned to talk early!

  19. Sally

    My little boy learnt sign language at nursery – ‘more’ ‘share’ ‘please’ ‘milk’. I am not sure how helpful it has been as usually I can tell what he wants – however I do find the ‘share’ sign good when we are out as it seems to reinforce the concept.

  20. Paola

    My eighteen month old daughter and I have been doing Sing and Sign here in the UK ( and it’s been a revelation.

    We started when she was eight months old and she really didn’t sign much until she was around fourteen months old, though she could understand signs made to her. Now, though, she has a ‘vocabulary’ of about 25 signs which include useful concepts such as ‘more’, ‘hot’, ‘hungry’, ‘change my nappy’ ‘ow’ and more descriptive signs such as ‘bee’, ‘dog’, ‘dolly’, ‘duck’, ‘aeroplane’ etc. so she can tell me what she is seeing. We sign our way through books and songs and our enjoyment is greatly enhanced as I know she really understands what is going on. For example, I know that she has made the connection between real cats, her toy cat and cats in picture books.

    In the last month or so we have been overtaken by a torrent of words, and interestingly many of her first words are ones she has signs for, though she still uses the signs more regularly. Lastly, she seems to have fewer hissy fits than her peers, I’m sure in part because we always know exactly what is wrong at any given time.

    It’s fun to learn (we do it in classes where we all sit and sing at the same time) and I can’t recommmend it highly enough.

  21. LisaC24

    I’ve been trying to sign with my son (as have a few friends who have boys) none of us have been successful. I notice that most of the comments here are all from parents of girls…. is this a coincidence….?

    Kirsten July 13th, 2006 12:15

    I have a 2 1/2 year old son, he started signing when he was about a year old. Me and my husband are learning as we go too! It is fun and he picked it up great! I think it’s probably the age you start them, and it helps when you make it fun.

  22. iheartpaper

    Yes, yes, yes! I’m a huge fan of sign language for babies before they learn how to talk. Studies I read said although learning sign language may slightly delay speech by a couple of months, children that learned sign language early on were able to express themselves verbally with better articulation and less frustration.

    We had a positive experience with it, but we didn’t use sign language for everything – just important things that we used everyday [cup, rain, snow, sun, eat, drink, etc.]

  23. Fiona

    If I was at work I could give you a review journal article I found on it, had to do some digging because every new Mum’s group I presented at asked “so what do you think of baby signing” (I’m a speech pathologist)

    Anyway, as an overview, research-wise it doesn’t look like any major studies have been done, but most of the anecdotal eveidence has been positive.

    Some programs claim to increae IQ, but most studies weren’t exactly thourough in looking at confounding variabels, so it was protty much the more time spent interacting with baby that did it, rather than specifically signing.

    If I rememebr I’ll find the article next week when I’m back at work, but yeah, I’ve always jsut said “it won’t hurt them” but stayed cautious from an eveidence based viewpoint over whether it actually helps

    (though i LOVE when kds learn to sign “more” and “finished” – especially our kids with Down’s – stwo VERY powerful words)

  24. Tisra

    I never made an effort to teach signing to my first two children (both boys). But our third child, a girl, hit a spot at one year old where she was easily frustrated and got quite screechy and screamy with us over not getting certain things. I think she was really mad that we couldn’t read her mind and she couldn’t speak. My husband and I were going crazy over the horrible high pitched screeches (like a falcon!) and decided to make up some signs and see if she’d catch on. They won’t be found in any book because I didn’t have a sign language resource book the vacation weekend we decided to introduce her to a few helpful signs. It was a night and day difference with the motions we taught her and it silenced the screeching! Again, they weren’t “proper” signs and we didn’t teach her many. The most helpful was a motion we made up for “please” but now (at 19 months) she won’t say the actual word “please” and still does the movement even as we urge her to SAY it. With time, I guess. All of her other language is on target- she just has resistance to actually speaking “please”.

  25. kelli ann

    it’s wonderful to see all of these positive responses– i think it’s great if anything leads to less frustration, greater communication, with your kids. i personally don’t like when claims are made of ‘raising IQ’ (the ‘winner’ mindset)– but the only experience i have (and it’s purely anecdotal) has led to a delay in speech development for one of my nephews. i don’t think that signing could be clearly identified as the sole reason for his delay, but there you go…

  26. Sheree

    We have two sons, 4yrs and 19mos, and have used sign with both of them. DH’s brother was born deaf so DH knows ASL very well. Between his signng lessons and the Signing Time DVDs, both our boys have been signing since about 10 mos..

    My older son didn’t talk much till past two, but now he never.shuts.up. So I guess he had better things to do than talk. LOL He knew probably around 60-70 signs at 2yrs and used them all the time. Our younger son signs constantly at 19mos, and since he’s more talkative than his older brother, younger DS also combines signs and speech to get his point across.

    Neither of my kids tantrum much, which I think is due in part to less frustration. They can communicate pretty well even at a young age (both kids knew the sign for ‘nurse’ by 10mos).

    I don’t see any drawbacks to signing with kids- it’s worked well for us!

  27. Kate

    We started using some signs when our son was about 6 months old. He started using “fan” and “light” very quickly, “drink” and “eat” a few weeks later. We were very inconsistent and never used that many (and most were ones he or we invented, including evolving signs for “nurse”). At 18 months, he still uses fan, light, gentle, drink, and please, but mostly talks. And talks. And talks.

    From what I’ve read, using sign actually *helps* with talking. It definitely helps with frustration!

  28. amyp

    Thanks for the link. My older sons learned this at daycare, and I halfheartedly looked for sites to introduce signs to my now 10 month old, the only signs that I knew which pertained to him were milk and eat.

    Thanks too, terri mac for the video link.

  29. Sara

    I signed with my son- now nearly three- and he started “getting it” at about 13-14 mos. By the time he started talking fairly fluently (before 2- I know kind of early) he regularly used about 50 signs. He didn’t really get the concept of being able to tell me problems, but he could identify things and make requests. As he learned to talked, the signs faded away, but signing cartainly didn’t impair his talking AT ALL! I’ll sign again with my daughter- now 7 mos- time to get out the sign dictionary once again!

  30. Leslie

    My husband and I signed with baby number 2, and now baby number 3. I think it’s absolutely amazing that we can communicate effectively with our little ones at such a young age. My son used his signs with us and with his sitter all the time — before we knew it, the other kids at daycare started signing too (even the ones who were already speaking). It’s an amazing journey that I cherish!

  31. Naomi

    We started signing with our son when he was about 9 months old. He didn’t sign back too much (just milk, ball & dog) until he was a year old. A month later, he had about 10 signs, and now, at almost 19 months old, I’ve lost count of his signs…maybe 40?

    He also has a lot of spoken words (maybe 30-40?), and is easily putting 2 words together. Some words he knows both the sign and the spoken word, some just one or the other.

    Moral? I don’t think signing adversely affected his speech at all, actually, I think it really helped! And it’s lots of fun!!

  32. m.

    My three old son has been in speech therapy for the past nine months for a speech disorder (CAS)…part of his therapy has been learning a few signs and these have been very powerful tools for him. Anything you can do to help your child communicate is good! Sometimes learning sign language augments spoken language.

  33. Laurie

    We taught C a few signs and it worked well in that period before he could speak, but knew he wanted something. We stuck to the basics like milk, more, thank you, please and he used them. Now he can speak and sometimes he’ll do the sign as he is saying the word – like making the motion for thank you as he says “tank you”. I don’t think it delayed him at all, in fact, I think it got him on the road to understanding that we need to be able to communicate with each other, if even in the most basic sense (does that make sense?)

  34. Sooz

    I’ve just been putting the finishing touches to a newspaper article I’ve done on sign language for hearing infants. I have been to a few sessions with a local group and, while I don’t have a child of my own, all the parents there were really positive, saying it eases a lot of frustration.

    They teach signing through songs, so for example would teach the animals with Old MacDonald. The children (6mo – 2yrs) all picked things up quickly and apparently use them all the time at home, and many of the parents said that their kids seem to be learning to speak sooner as well.

  35. plinth

    I third Signing Time as a resource. Our daughter has Down syndrome and we had Signing Time suggested by one of her Early Intervention specialists. We started at 8 months. She is definitely speech delayed, but as far as we can tell, she’s not language delayed, as her vocabulary is pretty darn close to that of any child her age (her generative vocab is about 500 signs). When she communicates something fairly complex to me, I count sign language as a blessing because I can’t imagine my frustration of not being able to understand her and her not being able to be understood.
    ST featured her on their foundation site:

  36. Jeannette

    Oh I recommend Signing Time, too. It just rocks.

    My son is profoundly deaf, and ever since he was about 10 mos old he has been glued to Signing Time. We’ve been signing to him as fast as we can learn ASL (again Signing Time helps us, too!). Now at 13 mos he’s signing back, and it is a huge sense of satisfaction that he’s communicating with us. I can only imagine how beneficial it would be to sign with a hearing child, too.

    Another benefit of signing with your hearing child is that it gives them basic vocabulary with which to communicate with deaf children they may encounter, and with the rise of cochlear implants in small children, we may begin to see more deaf children in mainstream classrooms, children who also continue to use some signs in addition to their speech development.

  37. Donna B.

    I would strongly urge parents of infants not to let concerns about speech delays stop you from signing with your baby. In their early days, I know we all want to think everything is normal and will happen on time and on track. But we do not know if that will be the case. Developmental delays can’t be predicted in most cases — only dealt with after the fact. And signing is often the key to breaking through a speech delay, by allowing a child to communicate successfully even though he isn’t speaking.

    This was my experience with my autistic son, who had a vocabulary of about 30 signs before he started talking. His speech therapists reinforced the signs we taught him at home (with the Signing Time dvds). This allowed him to experience successful communication and interaction with us — a huge step in his social development that would have been further delayed had we waited for speech.

    His little sister learned sign from infancy, started speaking on time, and is now (at 23 months) using the signs to grasp abstract concepts like numbers and letters, rather than to communicate a desire for cheese (her favorite early sign).

    Think about it this way — would you prevent your child from being exposed to a second language in infancy because it might “confuse” the child’s language development? Of course not — more than one language is a benefit to language development. And sign is a language. I also see the benefits in translating information into multiple sensory formats — the children don’t just hear and speak, they also use their kinesthetic sense in forming signs with their bodies. It involves them physically — they “become” the word, color, letter, number, animal.

    Lastly — I’ve learned an enormous number of signs watching the DVD’s with the kids, going online to find signs for words I would like to teach them, and reading books like “The Handmade Alphabet” to them. I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about early signing.

  38. Fixiefoo

    Great to see you spreading the word about baby signs. As a Deaf mama I haved signed with my boy since he was born and as a result his speech has been excellent from early on, and his signing is great too. I realise many of your readers are international, but I was surprised and disappointed that you linked to a site showing American sign language without any explanation that there are different sign languages in different countries, and it’s definitely appropriate for children to learn the local language. There are loads of resources – here’s one for Australian baby signs: and here’s a book with Australian baby signs Keep up the good work – Fixiefoo.

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