What is baby sign language?

Baby Sign Language is a form of physical communication between you and your baby.

As soon as babies are born, they begin the process of learning. They will gradually learn everything about the world around them, and it is us – their parents and caregivers – who act primarily as their “teachers” in this sense. We teach them the sound of their name, how warm bath water feels on their skin, how to hold onto our finger with their fist, and eventually how to sit and stand and walk and experience so many of the wondrous things that surround them each day.

But they teach us something very important as well: how little we understand of what’s going on in their minds!

When we have something to say, or to explain, we use our words. Babies don’t have this luxury. Until they master spoken language (which doesn’t happen for a very long time) they must instead rely on other means of communication. Usually this comes in the form of cries and coos and bodily gestures, all of which must be interpreted by the parent or caregiver, which is not an easy task.

This is where baby sign language comes in.

Babies are able to maneuver their fingers and hands much earlier and with greater ease than being able to form clear and coherent sounds with their voices, mouths and tongues. This is the basic premise for using sign language with very young children – to give them a more accessible way of expressing their thoughts and feelings than through speech alone.  It is a tool for better, more effective communication at a very young age, which can help us to better understand and respond to their wants and needs.

How does it work?

When you speak to your child, they gradually learn the meanings of your words.

When you speak and sign with your child, they learn those same meanings of the words, but now there is a physical component – a sign – that is attached to that meaning.

The learning process is the same, but now your baby has another way of expressing that meaning back to you.

Imagine a 10-month old baby trying to say, “Mommy, I want to drink some milk!” using only their words. It’s impossible! And when that baby is hungry – and getting hungrier by the minute – the general course of action is to escalate from looking at you (hoping you’ll somehow just know), to reaching out and trying to find the milk themselves (hoping you’ll eventually figure it out) to finally getting frustrated and start crying.

Now imagine that same baby who has learned that the concept of “milk” can also be represented by opening and closing their hand in a fist. They may try to “speak” the word to you, but the limited ability to move their lips and tongue will make it difficult for you to understand. So they try the second course of action, opening and closing a fist as they’ve seen you do so many times before. When you, the parent, see this gesture and recognize it as your child’s way of saying “milk”, you will know that this is what your child is asking for and can then give them milk to drink.

Where do the signs come from?

In baby sign language here in North America, we take signs from the American Sign Language (ASL) lexicon. ASL is a living language that was designed by Deaf people and is used within the Deaf community in North America.

Many children who are Deaf learn ASL as their first language, and many hearing people learn ASL as a second language. When we use signs with hearing babies (i.e. babies who are not Deaf), we take individual signs from the ASL vocabulary and incorporate them into our spoken language. It is important to recognize that when you use baby signs you are not teaching your baby sign language, rather you are teaching your baby the English language and enhancing it with accompanying signs. Your child will still learn to speak English in the same way as if you were not using signs. All the signs do is give your child a more accessible way of communicating English words back to you by using their hands rather than their words.

Why is it important?

Using hands and facial expressions for communicating is a very natural thing for babies and young children to do. For example, a very tiny baby might look in the direction of where they want to go, or move their body towards something they want to see. Older babies will reach their arms in the air when they want to be picked up, point to something they want to hold onto, and smile when they want to express happiness. We show our babies how to wave bye-bye and blow kisses and clap their hands when they hear music. All of these gestures are examples of a child’s natural inclination to use their bodies, by imitation, as a communicative tool.

When we incorporate signing into the way we communicate with our babies, it becomes as natural to them as hearing our speech or seeing us go about our daily activities. The only reason it seems new or foreign to us is because we didn’t grow up with it ourselves. If you, the parent/caregiver, use signs regularly with your spoken words, your child will naturally learn how to decipher the code of our English language and be able to “speak” back to you in the same way that they have seen you “speak” to them – using both words and gestures to the same effect.

The aim is for you and your baby to share the experience of learning together. The more they are able to tell you about what they want, what they need, or how they feel, the better you will be able to respond. And when you meet your baby’s needs, your baby will be happier – and so will you!

For more information on Baby Signing, visit these pages on the Signing Time website:signing-time