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Reasons to consider signing with your baby/toddler

Those who know me can testify that I love baby sign, I think it's fantastic on so many levels I even became a baby group class teacher for several years.  As I don't do it anymore, I have no financial incentive to "sell" signing to you, but I do think it's something worth considering.

What is infant signing?
Babies gesture before they can talk - often waving and clapping first.  Why? Because adults often wave and clap at young infants, and they can copy this before the pathways for speech are fully developed.  Really all baby sign is, is using more basic gestures to allow your child to communicate more, earlier.

  • Allows baby to express thoughts and needs before language is developed enough to do so verbally (i.e. talking)
  • Increased IQ, still apparent at age 7. (Acredolo and Goodwyn, 2000)
  • Reduces parent and infant frustration, increases communication and enriches parent-infant bonding - as baby begins to talk they often use the same sound for several things - "ba" could mean bath, ball or even sheep! Infants are often over two before they talk in longer sentences, but babies often mix sign and speech to say more. (Moore et al, 2001)
  • Increased interest in books. (Moore et al, 2001) Using signing alongside looking at books allows an infant to tell the story too.
  • Larger vocabularies and engage in more sophisticated play than non-signing babies. (Moore et al, 2001)
  • Signing can be great for older infants when speech is difficult because they are cross/frustrated/upset, or to really emphasise the point! Many keep the angry/sorry sign even once speech is fluent
  • Crosses cultural/language barriers and can help bilingual children connect words earlier.
  • Increased confidence in daycare setting as carers can understand and respond with sign too!
  • Encourages mum to talk to baby a lot, also known to be important to speech skills.
  • Helps infants process requests/directions/language.
  • If a child is later diagnosed with hearing problems or another reason to sign longer, they already have the foundations of communication.
How can it do that?
Signs "More"
Speech and language therapists have for years used sign to assist speech development.  Using both a sign AND the word (very important always to say the word as well as sign it) strengthens neurological connections and provides two pathways of recall for the child.  This is often obvious at toddler level when learning colours and the alphabet - if a child is stuck as soon as you start to do the sign they remember the word!  Many primary schools are now realising the benefits of sign and introducing it alongside key themes of early classes to help children retain information better.

Do all babies sign?
Of course the most obvious benefit to signing is they sign back - but this as shown above is not the only reason to sign, ie the above benefits aren't relative to how much your child signs back!

Development progresses in quite clear steps and many mums comment that first the infant recognises and responds to the sign eg signing "milk" results in grins and gurgles!  They then progress to using the sign themselves, maybe with a noise or sound and gradually the word becomes clearer.  But I have to be honest and say a small percentage of babies don't sign lots back, some stick with a few key signs; though if parents continue most will pick up more as toddlers eg as above for colours and alphabet etc.  On the other hand a lot learn oodles of signs and continue to mix them with speech to form more complex sentences.   One mum commented although her son didn't sign lots (he was 8 months), he understood her signs which had proved invaluable during a hospital stay to help calm and reassure him.

I found there are several factors influencing this:

Signs "Mouse"
Individuality - What does seem to be a common theme amongst those that don't use a massive range of signs is they are instead early talkers and thus simply don't have a need for many signs!  They are often putting several words together at the same age many are using signs and the odd word (or just the odd word if non signing).  Other mums comment their child uses more complex language/words than age comparable peers; as signing supports language development, their speech may well be so developed early because of sign.

How frequently the parent signs - This is a big factor.  If you sign every time you say a particular word, the infant will pick up the sign quicker.  Consistency is hard initially if you are not used to signing and often when speaking to mums in class, they realised they were not signing anywhere near as much as they thought they were.

Developing signs that are of interest - often signing programmes start with basic essentials like "eat", "drink" etc.  These are great as you can do them lots of times in a day to get you into the habit, but if your baby doesn't feel a need to sign these things (ie you regularly provide food and drink) they may not be the ones he wants to use.  A sign nearly every baby I know has picked up is the "more" sign, but once you are consistently remembering to sign, try to watch your baby to see what they are interested in and offer relevant signs (ie some love vehicles and might like the sign for "tractor" or "car", whilst others love animals and want to use "duck" or "bird" etc)

Patience - some babies sign back very quickly, others take a while then come out with lots at once! Babies have different development "schemas" and his mind may be busy with other things; there is a big communication burst for many infants around 8-10 months, when many are keen to develop this area.  If you begin signing with an older baby eg 12 months plus, some sign back amazingly quickly - even instantly!

When should you start and when can babies sign back?
You can begin signing as soon as your baby is alert and focusing - you talk to them then right?  I have several close friends who have signed from birth and their children have started signing back as early as 4 months.  Mine youngest signed "up" at 5 months actual age (born 6 weeks early) and "milk" a couple of weeks after - by 8 months he used lots of signs.

If mums start at 6 months, infants will typically start signing at 8-9 months - although as discussed they recognise the signs earlier and some are keen to communicate!

Similarly there's lots of reasons to start as late as toddler hood and continue even once speech is clear.  Once you consistently understand a word and they drop the sign, you can follow suit - but you can introduce new signs to help them remember more complicated words.

Another big reason to sign with toddlers in reinforcing concepts - for example if you have introduced your child to signs such as "gentle", and emotions such as "happy", "sad", etc from a young age, you can use them when explaining/discussing other scenarios when older.
Signs "Ouch"

As an example we always signed "pain" with my youngest when he bumped or someone else was hurt - he very quickly grasped this concept and it helped him understand easily he potentially could also cause pain; clearly demonstrated by a one day phase of him nipping me to cause a squeal, so he could quickly sign pain!

When he was 18 months he nipped when breastfeeding - I signed and said "ouch", "gentle" please; he signed back and said sorry whilst feeding and was extra careful for the rest of the feed.  Similarly it can be a very calm non confrontational way to point out their actions have hurt or upset another child.

You can use signs to reinforce your speech too - such as "must", "no" (a non negotiable situation), "stop" (ie running near a road type emergency halt) "hot"; it's also extra handy when in a busy location/your toddler is at a distance to save either yelling or "shadow parenting", and even useful I discovered recently during my 7 year old's Christmas show, when it meant I could tell her how much I was enjoying it whilst she was on stage looking at me nervously!

Overall it is a lovely way to increase communication between carer and baby from a young age; signs like change nappy/wet/dirty/clean can allow your child to express needs earlier, many use the pain sign to express teething - which can be a godsend to a mum wondering why her baby is screaming all night and wondering if it might be discomfort.  It also allows a window into their world, I can clearly remember a good friend telling me her joy when her toddler dragged her to the window and using a mix of sign and words communicated, "look, there's a bird eating!" 

There are lots of ways you can learn baby sign - books, DVDs, online resources or classes.  It all really depends what works for your learning style; I started with books but couldn't work out what the signs were doing from still images and so found the DVD worked well for picking them up.  My second attended the class I ran and many mums commented the weekly repetition and seeing other infants signing helped keep them motivated and remembering to sign!  I can highly recommend Sing and Sign classes, both from my own experience and from reviews from others - the catchy songs help you remember the signs and the class is interactive, hands on for baby too.  Most groups offer a free taster session for your to go along and see whether it's for you and your baby.

How do they stop signing?
Speech is easier than signing and so once the word is consistently understood, the sign drops away.  As mentioned above toddlers may hang onto one or two favourites signs used alongside words, if they want to emphasise their point - and it's surely a far nicer way to do that than shouting or stamping feet.  I've noticed signing babies seem to develop in two different ways - some quickly learn the words they've been signing, speak and drop the signs (at which point it can be good to add more challenging signs/words - even if your toddler only speaks them back).  Others learn the words first they don't have signs for and retain their use of signs slightly longer to mix them and say more - one mum pointed out her daughter still signed "more", yet could pronounce "apple juice" (which she didn't have a sign for) so she could use both to ask for more apple juice!  As language develops the remaining signs drop away.

Guidelines for signing:
  • Always say the word when you sign - if you sign in silence, so will your baby! As the aim for most infants is ultimately speech, your child will copy and attempt the word with their sign eventually.
  • Don't oversign!  If you try to cram lots of signs into a sentence, your speech has to become unnaturally slow to keep up - hearing infants need to hear and enjoy the natural rhythm and patterns of speech.  Pick the key focus of the sentence and sign that - would you like "more", would you like a "drink" etc
  • Have fun!  You can play lots of games with signs; in/out, fast/slow, go/stop - babies love to hide things, sign "where" and they play peekaboo, whilst a a favourite with toddlers is "stop/go" (you can dance/run/hop inbetween and then shout the action with the sign) which can provego/stop - babies love to hide things, sign "where" and they play peekaboo, whilst a a favourite with toddlers is "stop/go" (you can dance/run/hop inbetween and then shout the action with the sign) which can prove invaluable if you need your toddler to "stop" quickly, or be "quick quick quick" in a rush!
  • Watch for their version of the sign!  When they first attempt a sign, it can look a little different to the one you do - acknowledge their sign but remain consistent with yours (ie don't change it to match their attempt)
Did you sign with your baby or toddler?  Share your experiences here or on our Facebook group :)


  1. I taught my baby (almost 21 years old) to sign. No one else had heard of doing it back then. I had taken sign language when in college. I was frustrated when doing research for a hospital that a program was not encouraging signing with language delayed pre-schoolers. They thought if they taught them to sign, they wouldn't learn to talk! That is like saying if you carry your child in a sling they will never learn to crawl or walk! Anyways, I taught her and my 6 other children (my twins signed each other), my day-care children & my foster children. It made frustration so much lower! Communication isn't necessarily verbal! I can still communicate without speaking to my kids. It comes in very handy when we are on opposite sides of a large room, that is noisy! Also I find since facial expressions are an important part of signing that they are also more aware of people's facial expressions! My grandson learned signing as well. One of the little day-care lads actually taught his other little friend ( a girl) to sign. We were all at the beach & told the little girl's mom how great it was she taught her daughter to sign. She told me she didn't that the other little boy (the one I had taught to sign) had taught her little girl. Amazing!!!!

  2. One thing not mentioned above is siblings. We weren't as thorough at remembering to sign with Little One ( Big One is 2.5 yrs older and I did more classes with her) but she learned so much more from her sister ( not only signing, lots of things!) and she will still occasionally sign now to emphasis what she's saying, nearly 3 yrs now.

  3. I started signing with DS at 6 months. At 9 months he used 'all gone', and stopped a month later. By 15 months he's not using any signs I've taught him (except, oddly, 'hat'), but he has made up some of his own - ear, eye, head, hair, tummy, chest, toes.

    He pays really close attention to my signs though, often asking me to do them and frequently touching objects (like a radiator) if they have a sign he particularly enjoys watching.

  4. It is really useful. I am lucky and did it with my older children, 9 & 7, but we did ASL last time, and this time I am using BSL, so that they can learn some sign language at the same time.

    I always remember Catrina, my oldest, being obsessed with Birds from a 9 month old, she was continually signing she could see them, wanted to go find them. I would never have know that they even interested her without signing.

    Now we are lucky enough to be on another Baby Adventure with our youngest, who is just 6 monthes old.

  5. I love this post! I started sign language with my daughter at a few months old, basically just doing milk and change (for diaper). She didn't start signing for a long time and only a few of them (milk, more, airplane). She started talking right after she started signing and then picked up words verbally faster than I could learn the signs for them. I assumed I just hadn't done it right because she didn't sign back. She has an amazing vocabulary and has been using complex sentences for a long time, so maybe I didn't. :)


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