Should You Try Teaching Your Baby Sign Language? (2022)

Your baby may be a born communicator, but that doesn’t always mean you’ll always understand what he’s trying to say — especially in the first and second year, when communication (and comprehension) gaps between a little one and the parents who struggle to understand him can be big.

Your baby will likely develop the skills necessary to say his first word around 8 to 12 months of age (give or take a couple of months). Until then, baby sign language can be a really helpful tool.

What is baby sign language?

Baby sign language is an effective way to help your child communicate, allowing your non-verbal little one to express his needs before he knows how to use words.

Better communication, in turn, leads to smoother interactions and fewer frustrations (for both of you). It also boosts baby’s confidence as a communicator ("they get me!"), which spurs his motivation to keep communicating — first through signs, then through a mix of signs and sounds, and ultimately through words.

Will sign language slow baby’s verbal development?

Research suggests that by giving your baby an early method of communication, sign language can stimulate his desire to learn more communication techniques, including talking. Baby sign language gives him an effective way to engage with those around him, so he gets even more out of social experiences.

Signing with your baby means you’ll be spending more time talking with him too — and there’s no better way to help him learn to speak than speaking to him.

How to teach baby sign language

If your baby is about 8 to 9 months old, you’ve probably seen him wave goodbye or point to something he wants. He’s learned these gestures simply by watching and mimicking the adults in his life (that’s you!).

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Teaching your baby sign language is as easy as repeating a gesture and saying the corresponding word when you have your baby’s attention. Once he starts to catch on that he can use gestures to communicate with you, he may surprise you with how quickly he learns baby sign language.

If you’d like to start using baby signs, speech-language pathologists recommend keeping these tips in mind:

  • Sign on early. Begin teaching your baby sign language as soon as he shows an active interest in communicating with you — preferably by 8 or 9 months, though there’s no harm in getting into the signing habit earlier or later. Most babies will start signing back somewhere between 10 and 14 months.
  • Sign as needed. Choose signs that are important, meaningful and useful to your child. These include signs that express his everyday needs — such as being hungry, thirsty and sleepy — and relate to his routines.
  • Follow your baby’s signs.As their fine motor skills develop, many babies invent their own signs or modify signs. If yours does, always use the signs of his design, which are more meaningful to him.
  • Speak and sign at the same time. Say the word out loud while doing baby sign language to ensure your baby connects the sign with the spoken word.
  • Sign consistently. Ensure that your signs are consistent and frequent. Repetition is key: By seeing the same sign over and over, your baby will learn and imitate them more quickly.
  • Put in face time. Children love to look at our faces and especially our eyes, so make signs close to your face and your baby will be more likely to notice them.
  • Use the world around you. If you are signing for an object, make the sign close to or on top of the object.
  • Reward him. Your baby is more apt to learn a sign if he gets what he’s asking for promptly. So if he signs for all done, acknowledge his communication verbally and take away his plate.
  • Sign him up. If you want to go more formal, sign you and your baby up for a class on baby sign language (many hospitals, community centers and other organizations offer classes). Or look for books or online resources that teach baby sign language, many of which use the formal signs from American Sign Language (ASL).
  • Sign up the whole family. The more people in baby’s life who can speak his language, the happier he’ll be. So aim to make siblings, grandparents, care providers and anyone else who spends a lot of time with your baby familiar with at least the most important signs.
  • Know when to sign off. Signing, like all forms of communication, should develop naturally and at a little one’s own pace, without any pressure. If your little one seems frustrated by baby sign language, resists using them or shows signs of sign overload, don’t force the agenda. The idea is to reduce frustration for both of you, not add to it.
  • Encourage your baby right from the beginning. When your child begins to imitate your signing, it likely won’t be perfect right away — so consider it sign language babbling. Acknowledge and respond to signs that are close to your signs, just like you would if it was perfect, to keep your baby interested and motivated to keep trying.

The best signs to teach baby

When you first start baby sign language, develop natural signs that work for you and your baby. Any simple gesture that fits a word or phrase well can work. A few suggestions that might come in handy:

  • Sleep: Hands together and supporting a tilted head
  • Hungry: A rubbed belly
  • Eat/food: Tapping the tips of fingers to mouth (like you’re eating) with palm face down and thumb touching fingers
  • Milk: Squeeze fingers in and out (like you’re squeezing a cow’s udder)
  • Drink: A cupped hand placed to the mouth
  • More:Touch fingers to thumb on each hand and then touch hands together at the fingertips repeatedly
  • All done: Fingers facing up, twist your hands back and forth
  • Up: Arms up
  • Down: Palm facing down, with index finger pointed to the ground, and then lowering hand
  • Mommy: Tap your thumb to your chin (open palm, fingers facing up)
  • Daddy: Tap your thumb to your forehead (open palm, fingers facing up)

Benefits of baby sign language

While most children can benefit from baby sign language, it can be especially valuable for children who start talking on the later side. Some kids find communicating frustrating, which results in behavior problems (tantrums, crying, screaming or hitting) when they’re not understood.

Studies have shown that language delays are a risk factor in behavior problems in babies and toddlers. Baby sign language can help to alleviate some of that frustration by offering a means of expression.


That said, while sign language is a great tool to encourage early development of language skills, it’s not a substitute for professional help. If you suspect your child may have a speech or language delay or hearing loss, talk to your child’s doctor.

He or she may refer your child to a licensed speech-language pathologist and/or audiologist for tests to diagnose or rule out any issues that require important follow-up help with a specialist.

Does baby sign language improve verbal skills?

Do baby signs signal a smarter future for your baby? Not necessarily.

Though a baby who’s able to sign definitely has an easier time communicating early on, studies have not shown that signing to your baby will enable him to speak sooner or give him a lasting language edge. And once a child can speak and be understood, the verbal gap between signing babies and those who skip signs seems to diminish and eventually disappear.

Baby sign language can make life a little easier during the preverbal stage, but it’s definitely not necessary — either for your relationship with your baby or his language development. So sign on to baby sign language if you’re feeling it, but if you’re not (or baby’s not), don’t feel compelled to keep it up.

Communicate with your little one any way that works and feels comfortable to you both (inevitably, some nonverbal communication will make its way into the mix on baby’s side, whether it’s gestures like pointing or assorted grunts and squeals — all of which can be surprisingly effective). Eventually the words will flow, and the communication gap will close.

From the What to Expect editorial team andHeidi Murkoff,author ofWhat to Expect When You're Expecting. What to Expect follows strict reporting guidelines and uses only credible sources, such as peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and highly respected health organizations. Learn how we keep our content accurate and up-to-date by reading ourmedical review and editorial policy.


Should you teach your baby sign language? ›

Baby signs and gestures can be a great tool to help parents and caregivers support early communication skills. You can use baby signs to teach your child to communicate their wants and needs to you. Infant signs and gestures can be taught to young children to help develop their communication skills.

What age should you start baby sign language? ›

When should I start baby sign language? Around six to eight months old is a great time to start teaching your baby how to sign. “Babies are typically at a developmental stage where they are curious to communicate and pay more attention to things presented to them,” says Steyns.

What is the main concern when teaching baby sign language? ›

Other parents have serious concerns about the impacts of Baby Sign Language. They worry that encouraging their child to use sign language will take away from their practice on verbal speech, potentially causing delays in their verbal development.

What are the disadvantages of baby sign language? ›

Cons of Baby Sign Language

Some feel that baby sign language can delay speech or halt language development, but there's no credible research that supports these claims. In fact, some studies show that it might increase language development, while other studies show no impact on language skills at all.

Does using sign language delay speech? ›

Some parents are wary, however – the most frequent question I've come across is, “Will learning sign language delay my child's speech?” The answer is no – learning sign language will not hurt your child's speech development.

Can a 4 month old learn sign language? ›

Though can start at any time, an excellent time to begin signing with your baby is around 6 months old. Beginning early gives them plenty of time to observe and understand the signs before they start gesturing and mimicking, typically around 6 to 9 months old.

What is the difference between ASL and baby sign language? ›

Is baby sign language the same as American Sign Language (ASL)? Not necessarily. American Sign Language is a complete language with its own complex system of grammar and word order rules, where as the term “baby sign language” refers to using signs and gestures to communicate with baby.

Does sign language with babies delay speech? ›

MYTH: Baby sign language delays speech.

FACT: Research has found, time and time again, that baby sign language does not delay speech. All you need to do is say the words while signing them. That way, your baby can still see your mouth movements and hear the words attached to the signs.

What happens if a deaf infants parents don't use sign language? ›

More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Without sign language, parents don't have a way to meaningfully communicate or bond with their deaf child. Without sign language, deaf children can experience language deprivation, limiting their potential for a lifetime.

What is the assumption behind baby signing? ›

It's one of the most common assumptions that people make about baby sign language — that babies can sign before they can speak.

Does baby sign make a difference? ›

No. “There is little evidence that it can 'improve' typically developing infants” [2, p. 586]. This study provided some evidence that it may help children with weak language abilities, but this was only found in three children (too small a number to draw any widespread conclusions).

Is speech delay a sign of intelligence? ›

In short, speech delay is a fairly common condition that worries many parents. However, knowing how to speak sooner or later does not affect a child's intelligence but can also be a sign of some pathologies such as autism, Einstein syndrome,...

What counts as a baby saying a word? ›

Remember, we count it as a word if your toddler uses the word CONSISTENTLY, INDEPENDENTLY, and INTENTIONALLY to refer to someone or something. If your baby or toddler says the word once, it would NOT count as a word. It is important to keep these word types in mind when counting the number of words that your child has.

Does TV cause language delay? ›

It isn't so much that language delays are caused by watching television. It's that children benefit most when they engage in conversations with other people. Screen time can create problems if it displaces conversation time and other important, real-world, developmental activities.

What are the benefits of baby sign language? ›

Research shows that sign language speeds up speech development, reduces frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves before they know how to talk, increases parent-child bonding, and lets babies communicate vital information, such as if they are hurt or hungry.

What should a 4 month old be playing with? ›

Let your baby discover that actions can make things happen. Provide toys that move or make sounds when your baby plays with them, such as baby musical instruments, busy boxes, or see-through toys that show motion. Sing nursery rhymes like "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

What should I teach my newborn? ›

Spend time with your baby: try reading and telling stories, talking and singing. Doing these things every day also helps your baby get familiar with sounds and words. In turn, this develops language and communication skills your baby will need when they're older.

What are the 3 types of sign language? ›

Not a Universal Language

Interestingly, most countries that share the same spoken language do not necessarily have the same sign language as each other. English for example, has three varieties: American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL) and Australian Sign Language (Auslan).

Do early walkers talk late? ›

No, there is no negative correlation,and there is only a slight positive correlation between the two, in that some children with learning difficulties learn to walk and talk later. Don't compare with others- follow developmental milestones provided- otherwise you run the risk of panicking for no reason.

What causes delayed language babies? ›

Developmental Delay of Expressive or Receptive Language

Trouble with language processing is usually caused by one of four problems: delayed expressive or receptive language, autism spectrum disorder, hearing loss, and global developmental delay.

Can speech delay cause autism? ›

Not necessarily. While speech delays, language delays, and learning differences are often a hallmark of ASD, a speech delay by itself does not mean a child has autism. In fact, there are key differences between communication delays caused by autism and other types of speech-language disorders.

How do I teach my newborn sign language? ›

You don't have to put special time aside to teach your child signs. All you have to do is make the gesture whenever you say the word in your day-to-day routines. The key is consistency and persistence on your part: Every time you give your child his bottle, say the word "milk" and do the sign for "milk."

Do babies sign language delay? ›

MYTH: Baby sign language delays speech.

FACT: Research has found, time and time again, that baby sign language does not delay speech. All you need to do is say the words while signing them. That way, your baby can still see your mouth movements and hear the words attached to the signs.

Is it crucial for deaf babies to learn sign language early? ›

Research shows that children who learn to sign early do better across a range of measures, including academic achievement, than children who don't. It also suggests that children who begin to learn sign language at birth have more success learning to use cochlear implants to access speech.

Do early walkers talk later? ›

No, there is no negative correlation,and there is only a slight positive correlation between the two, in that some children with learning difficulties learn to walk and talk later. Don't compare with others- follow developmental milestones provided- otherwise you run the risk of panicking for no reason.


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