Baby Sign and Sign Language

Posted by kmmeacham in Blog, mom tips on Fri, Feb 7, 2014

Baby Sign and Sign Language

I have a friend who is getting ready to have her first child and she was asking me about baby sign. Should she use it? When should she start to use it? Why is it good? Does it help? As a mother of two deaf children I know a few things about sign and the usefulness of it with infants and toddlers. Using signed language provides a bridge for infants and toddlers into the world of spoken language. Often making what can be a frustrating guessing game into a productive conversation.

First is a misunderstanding that baby sign, sign language, and American Sign Language are all the same. Baby sign is just that, signs that babies use to communicate with their parents and caregivers. These can be totally made up by the child or the parent and in that way they are communicating with each other. Sign language is a larger term that encompasses languages such as American Sign Language, Signed Exact English, and gestures. We all use gestures every day and in that way they are a ‘signed language.’ You might understand that when someone shrugs their shoulders they “don’t know”. Or if they point up they mean “up”. These gestures are part of body language and are very regional. American Sign Language is a full language that has its own syntax, grammar and semantics and is ever changing. High Schools now offer ASL as a foreign language. ASL has its own unique culture as well.

So back to baby sign, yes it will make things easier in the long run. When to start? Day ONE! Sign milk, whether it the actual sign or your family’s sign it really does not matter! Just sign it every chance you can! You seen this is the hard part for hearing people, because we narrate life with our voices, not our hands. Making sure that you sign it every time is the most important part. It is the same as saying it, sign and speak and the child’s brain will catch on. Your child’s signs will be clumsy; just like mommy is ma-ma, and daddy is da-da. However don’t beat yourself up for making the sign wrong, the baby will not know and you can fix it later! My son’s first sign was “pay” because I mistook that sign for “more”. He is now a fluent ASL signer and speaker, even though his mom started him signing the wrong sign.

How to teach your toddler:

Power words are the perfect place to start if you have a toddler. More, food/eat and drink/milk are great first signs for a toddler as it gives them a small vocabulary that gives them power. Spend 5 to 10 minutes playing with food teaching them the sign for more. This is how I taught my son in 15 minutes the home sign for more. He was sitting in his high chair not starved and mostly happy. I signed “more” and said the word more at the same time, then gave him a Cheerio. After he ate the Cheerio, I took his hands and made the sign for more with his hands and gave him another Cheerio. Using the hand over hand technique as well as saying the word over and over, giving him another Cheerio each time in about 15 minutes he was making the sign himself and receiving Cheerios each time. Once he had one down it was time to move on to another one….milk. Adding about 1 to 2 signs per week your child can have a fairly large vocabulary in a short time. With hearing children I would also encourage speech as you sign the words that way they are also gaining the speech vocabulary as well.

Here are some great places to start your journey into a signing life:

Signing Time DVDs (by using stories with ASL signs a great fun way to learn) (an online ASL course and ASL dictionary)
Signing Savvy (online dictionary and gives a great baby sign word list)


Single mom of two wonderfully Deaf children, David and Grace.

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