Baby Sign Language: Building Communication Skills

October 11, 2023

Did you know that using baby sign language can greatly enhance your baby’s communication skills? Baby sign language is a way for infants to communicate using simple gestures before they are able to speak. By teaching your baby sign language, you can help them express their needs, wants, and emotions, reducing frustration and increasing their language development. In this article, we will explore the benefits of baby sign language and how you can incorporate it into your daily routine to build strong communication skills with your little one. Get ready to embark on an exciting journey of language exploration together!

Why Baby Sign Language?

Benefits of Baby Sign Language

Baby sign language is a valuable tool that can enhance communication between parents and their infants. By teaching babies to use simple hand gestures, parents can effectively bridge the gap between pre-verbal infants and the language-rich world around them. Some of the key benefits of using baby sign language include:

  1. Early Communication: Babies typically develop the ability to communicate their needs and desires long before they can speak. Baby sign language provides them with an outlet to express themselves, reducing frustration and promoting a sense of empowerment.

  2. Enhanced Bonding: Learning baby sign language involves close interaction and attention between parent and child. This not only fosters a stronger bond but also encourages positive emotional connection and attachment.

  3. Language Development: Baby sign language serves as a stepping stone to spoken language development. By exposing babies to signs that correspond to words and concepts, parents can facilitate a deeper understanding of language, which can later translate into better speech and vocabulary skills.

  4. Reduced Tantrums: When babies are equipped with the ability to express themselves more effectively, they are less likely to resort to tantrums or other disruptive behaviors. Baby sign language provides an alternative means of communication, allowing parents to meet their baby’s needs promptly and efficiently.

  5. Cognitive Advantages: Research has shown that babies who learn sign language tend to develop enhanced cognitive skills, such as better memory retention and problem-solving abilities. The act of signing requires focus and concentration, which can stimulate brain development in infants.

When to Start Baby Sign Language

The optimal time to start teaching baby sign language is typically around six to eight months of age. At this stage, infants have begun to understand simple words and gestures, while their fine motor skills are gradually developing. It is important to note that while babies can start learning signs as early as three to four months, they may not begin using them until later. Consistency, patience, and repetition are key to success when introducing sign language to your baby.

Common Concerns

Parents may have some concerns or misconceptions when it comes to teaching their baby sign language. Let’s address a few common concerns:

  1. Delays in Speech: There is a common misconception that teaching baby sign language may delay a baby’s speech development. However, research has consistently shown that baby sign language actually promotes and enhances spoken language skills. It is important to remember that sign language is a complement to, not a replacement for, verbal language.

  2. Replacing Verbal Language: Another concern is that babies may rely solely on signing and forego developing spoken language skills. This is unlikely to happen if parents consistently expose their babies to both sign and spoken language. Signing serves as a bridge to spoken language and can help babies communicate their wants and needs before they have mastered the motor skills required for clear speech.

  3. Confusing for Baby: Some parents worry that introducing sign language may confuse their baby. However, research has consistently shown that babies are capable of distinguishing between different communication methods. Babies are highly adaptable and can quickly learn that signs are used in specific contexts or situations.

Now that we have addressed these concerns, let’s delve into how to get started with baby sign language.

Getting Started with Baby Sign Language

Choosing Signs

When it comes to choosing signs to teach your baby, it’s best to start with basic signs that are relevant to their daily routine and experiences. Begin with signs for things like “milk,” “eat,” “more,” and “all done.” These signs will help your baby communicate their needs related to hunger and mealtimes. As your baby becomes familiar with these signs, you can gradually introduce new ones that align with their interests and surroundings.

Basic Signs to Begin With

Here are a few basic signs that are commonly used and easy for babies to learn:

  1. “Milk”: Touch your fingertips to your lips and then touch them to your baby’s lips.

  2. “Eat”: Bring your fingertips to your mouth, as if putting food into your mouth.

  3. “More”: Tap the fingertips of both hands together repeatedly.

  4. “All Done”: Wave both hands in front of your body, palms facing outward.

It’s important to consistently use these signs in a meaningful context, such as during feeding times or when your baby is indicating that they are finished with a task or activity.

Signing Essentials

When teaching your baby sign language, there are a few essentials to keep in mind:

  1. Consistency: Consistency is key in teaching your baby sign language. Use the same signs consistently in various contexts to reinforce their meaning. This will help your baby understand and associate the signs with their corresponding words or concepts.

  2. Repetition: Babies learn through repetition, so be sure to repeat signs frequently and consistently. Repetition helps reinforce the learning process and allows your baby to become more familiar with the signs over time.

  3. Visual and Verbal Cues: When introducing a sign, say the corresponding word out loud while simultaneously demonstrating the sign. This will help your baby make the connection between the sign and the spoken word.

Creating a Signing Routine

Incorporating baby sign language into your daily routine can be a fun and effective way to reinforce learning. Consider the following tips to create a signing routine:

  1. Mealtime: Use signs for “eat,” “drink,” and “more” during meals to help your baby communicate their needs and preferences.

  2. Playtime: Introduce signs for common toys or activities during playtime. For example, you can sign “ball” or “play” while engaging in a game of catch.

  3. Bedtime: Incorporate signs for “sleep” or “book” during nighttime routines. Before bedtime, sign “book” while reading a bedtime story.

Remember to be patient and consistent as you begin incorporating sign language into your baby’s routine. With time and practice, your baby will begin to understand and use signs more readily.

Teaching Baby Sign Language

Modeling Signs

One of the most effective ways to teach baby sign language is by modeling signs for your baby. Show them the sign while saying the corresponding word to help them make the connection. In the early stages, you may need to guide your baby’s hands to create the sign. Over time, they will begin imitating the signs themselves.

Repetition and Practice

Repetition is crucial when teaching baby sign language. Consistently repeat the signs during daily routines and activities. Include sign language in your conversations with your baby, reinforcing the signs visually and verbally. The more frequently your baby encounters the signs, the faster they will associate them with their meanings.

Keeping it Fun

Learning should always be enjoyable for both you and your baby. Incorporate playful elements into your sign language sessions to keep your baby engaged and interested. Use animated facial expressions, exaggerated gestures, and songs to make the learning experience fun and interactive. Your enthusiasm will motivate your baby to participate and learn.

Incorporating Signs into Daily Life

To ensure that your baby grasps the concept of baby sign language, incorporate signs into everyday situations. Whenever you use a specific object or engage in a particular action, consistently use the corresponding sign. This practice will help your baby understand the context in which each sign is used and encourage them to do the same.

Building Vocabulary

Expanding Sign Language Vocabulary

As your baby becomes comfortable with the initial signs you taught them, it’s time to expand their sign language vocabulary. Introduce signs that align with their emerging interests or experiences. For example, if your baby shows an interest in animals, you can introduce signs for “dog,” “cat,” or “bird.”

Introducing New Signs

When introducing new signs, follow the same process you used for the initial signs. Model the sign while saying the corresponding word, and be consistent in using the sign in relevant contexts. Encourage your baby to imitate the signs, and remember that repetition is key to reinforcing learning.

Using Books and Songs

Books and songs can be great tools for teaching new signs to your baby. Look for books that incorporate sign language or feature pictures of common objects or actions. As you read the book, demonstrate the corresponding signs. Singing songs that include gestures or specific movements can also help your baby learn new signs in a fun and interactive way.

Understanding Baby’s Progress

Signs that Baby Understands

You can gauge your baby’s understanding of sign language by observing their responses to the signs you teach. Signs that indicate your baby understands include:

  1. Imitation: Your baby starts copying the signs you model.

  2. Anticipation: Your baby recognizes the sign and anticipates the corresponding action or object.

  3. Prompting: Your baby uses a sign to request something, such as signing “more” when they want more food.

Baby’s First Sign

Every baby progresses at their own pace, so their first sign may vary. Some common first signs include “milk,” “eat,” or “more.” When your baby demonstrates their first sign, it is a significant milestone that showcases their ability to understand and communicate using sign language.

Stages of Sign Language Development

Just as with spoken language, sign language development in babies progresses through different stages. The stages include:

  1. Observation: Your baby begins to observe and absorb signs used by others.

  2. Imitation: Your baby starts imitating signs they see, initially with guidance and eventually independently.

  3. Communication: Your baby begins using signs to communicate their wants and needs.

  4. Expansion: Over time, your baby expands their sign vocabulary, learning new signs to express their growing interests and experiences.

  5. Fluency: With consistent practice and exposure, your baby becomes fluent in sign language, using it effectively for communication.

It’s important to remember that each baby progresses at their own pace, and it is normal for different babies to reach these stages at different ages.

Overcoming Challenges

Baby’s Frustration

In the early stages of learning sign language, your baby may become frustrated when they are unable to communicate their needs effectively. Encourage them to persist by providing positive reinforcement and promptly responding to their signs. Stay patient and understanding, as it may take time for your baby to build confidence in using sign language.

Misinterpretation and Clarification

It’s possible that initially, you may misinterpret some of your baby’s signs. If this happens, try to clarify their intended meaning by asking questions or providing context. Remember that learning sign language is a two-way process, and communication will become clearer as both you and your baby become more familiar with the signs.

Dealing with Resistance

Occasionally, your baby may resist using sign language. If your baby seems uninterested or reluctant to use signs, try to make the learning process more engaging and enjoyable. Incorporate toys, games, or songs into your signing sessions to capture your baby’s attention and make them eager to participate. If the resistance persists, take a break and try again later when your baby may be more receptive.

Supporting Language Development

Connection to Verbal Language

Baby sign language does not replace verbal language; instead, it complements it. By teaching babies sign language, you are laying the foundation for their future verbal communication skills. As your baby becomes more proficient in using signs, they will also naturally progress towards developing and refining their spoken language.

Encouraging Verbal Communication

While teaching baby sign language, it is essential to continue encouraging your baby’s verbal communication. Pair signs with spoken words, emphasizing the verbal component of communication. Engage in frequent conversations with your baby, using descriptive language and expanding their vocabulary with new words.

Transition to Speech

As your baby’s vocal and motor skills develop, they will gradually transition from using signs to expressing themselves through speech. Encourage their verbal communication by acknowledging their efforts and responding to their attempts at speaking. Celebrate their milestones and provide a supportive and nurturing environment for their continued language development.

Involving Caregivers and Family

Educating Caregivers

To ensure consistency in teaching and reinforcing baby sign language, it is essential to educate and involve all caregivers and family members. Share information about the signs being taught and provide resources or demonstrations to help them understand how to use the signs effectively. Consistency among all caregivers will help reinforce learning and promote successful communication.

Consistency Among Family Members

Consistency is key when teaching baby sign language, so it’s important for all family members to use the same signs consistently. This ensures that your baby associates signs with their intended meanings, regardless of who is communicating with them. Encourage family members to actively participate in signing with your baby and support their language development journey.

Involving Others in Communication

Using baby sign language can be an excellent way for your baby to connect with other caregivers, family members, or friends outside the immediate family. Encourage others to learn a few basic signs and engage in signing with your baby. This inclusive approach enhances your baby’s communication skills and allows them to connect with a broader network of individuals.

Common Myths and Misconceptions

Delaying Speech Development

Contrary to a common myth, baby sign language does not delay speech development. On the contrary, it supports and enhances verbal language skills. Babies who learn sign language often develop speech earlier and exhibit a broader vocabulary than their peers who have not been exposed to sign language.

Replacing Verbal Language

Another misconception is that babies who use sign language may rely solely on signing and not develop their spoken language skills. However, research indicates that signing merely acts as a bridge to verbal communication. Babies naturally transition from using signs to speaking, and the use of sign language does not inhibit their progression towards spoken language.

Confusing for Baby

Some people worry that introducing sign language may confuse babies. However, babies are highly adaptable and quickly learn to distinguish between different methods of communication. They can differentiate between signs and spoken words, understanding their distinct purposes and contexts. Babies are incredibly capable of learning and integrating multiple forms of communication simultaneously.


Baby sign language is a powerful tool that can greatly enhance communication between parents and their infants. By incorporating sign language into your daily routine, you can empower your baby to express themselves effectively, reduce frustration, and build a strong foundation for language development. Remember to be patient, consistent, and make learning fun through modeling, repetition, and play. With dedication and nurturing, you can establish successful communication with your baby and enjoy the numerous benefits that baby sign language offers, both in the present and for their future language skills.

Sandra McNeil, PhD.
Sandra McNeil, PhD.

Sandra has over 13 years of experience as a child psychologist, both as a practitioner and researcher. She has a Bachelor's in child psychology from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and then she did her master's in Psychology in Education (focused on Children & Families) at Columbia University, NY. She has been writing for health and child-related publications for over 5 years now.

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