Baby Sign: What They Don’t Want You to Know

There are a billion products on the market that are supposed to teach you and your baby how to sign. Many want you to put baby in front of the TV so they can “learn”.  Now, while your baby will probably love watching TV of other babies, they will NOT learn language this way. That’s not how baby’s learn (trust me, I am a professional.  Or used to be).  Baby’s learn language through relationships- by talking to, playing  with, and interacting with, others.

  You can spend a lot of money on all of these baby sign products and just plain get nowhere.

So you want to know the secret? You sure? You ready for this?

“Baby” sign is just American Sign Language.  Yup.  ASL.  And no, you don’t have to be fluent, or even familiar with it to teach your baby.  You can learn it as you go, just like your baby is.  

A simple how to:

Start with one, or maybe two, signs.  

Don’t go crazy with it, start simple and easy.  If baby seems at ease with the first signs, then feel free to add another.  They will build vocabulary quickly and so will you. 

Don’t expect too much, too soon.

While you can start showing your baby signs from day one, don’t expect them to understand it till at least 6 months.  You may see a 6 month old signing.  But realistically don’t expect anything till 8-10 months old. My daughter has seen a few signs since birth, but her signing didn’t really take off till just before a year old.  

Baby signing isn’t magic- your child still has to understand language and be able to use it.  The signs just make it easier for them to communicate when their tongue is still too unwieldy to produce English.

“Baby” talk.

Just like your baby’s first words, your baby’s first signs will probably be a bit awkward and hard to understand.  Let’s face it, these guys have small hands, short and stubby fingers.  Many signs are tricky for those cute little hands.  Just like you would accept “dah” for “dog” in English accept an approximation of a sign in ASL.  Don’t worry, baby will improve with practice.

Common use.

Don’t start with the sign for Raven, or tree, or dish, or cow.  Unless you say those words all the time.  Pick something you use, eat, or do a lot.  For an infant I would suggest milk.  Those suckers need milk like a dozen times a day.  The more frequently they see the sign the faster they should catch on.


Initially choose signs that will reward baby.  I started with milk.  Once Moppet had that I added on more, bite and all done. The point of signing isn’t too discuss Shakespeare and the stock market.  It is to teach your baby that words have power and that they can use language to communicate needs. Give baby words she can use!

Say it.

Unless you are deaf and ASL is your primary language, then say the word in your primary language as you sign it.  Baby sign is meant to bridge the gap between your baby’s receptive language (what they understand) and expressive language (what they can say).  Their hand coordination develops before their tongue coordination, so they can often learn to sign a word before they can say it.  In fact, they are probably trying to say it but it keeps coming out gibberish.

Watch it, don’t read it.

ASL is a very visual language.  It is three dimensional.  DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT learn it from a book.  You will learn it wrong.  And you can make some very embarrassing mistakes.  Trust me. For example: there is a very small difference between the word “late” and “naked”.  It looks  more or less the same on paper, but very different on film or in person.  Signing “I arrived naked” when you meant to say “I arrived late” is kind of embarrassing.  

Go online, save your $.

There are a million sources for ASL online, including video dictionaries.  Use these.

My favorite for learning sign has been the podcast by USI (it’s free on I tunes).  It’s titled “USI- EDUC490: American Sign Language”.  They even have a whole podcast on signs you may want to teach baby, like milk and mommy and daddy.

If you can’t go online, or the online sources aren’t enough, check your local library.  

Get a visual medium- a dvd with a book is preferable.  Choose something that is more than just a series of vocabulary if you can- maybe a book of songs with the signs to go with for example.  You can sign “Mary Had a Little Lamb” while singing it. Fun! You and baby will learn better if there is music and grammar attached to the vocabulary.

OK, that’s all great, but it sounds like a lot of work.  Why should I bother?

Fewer tantrums.

 When  your one year old can just tell you that they are hungry, they want a snack (not milk mommy, a snack!) they are empowered.  They don’t have to wait for you to figure it out. You can avoid a lot of the frustrations your toddler has when they can’t communicate clearly with you.  Signs won’t eliminate tantrums (so far, there is nothing legal or ethical that can do that!) But they will decrease the amount of tantrums.  Your toddler may be having a fit over not getting more cookie, but at least you know they are crying because they want a cookie!  

They have to power to tell you all done, as well as more.  They can stop an activity, or tell you they are full.  Instead of pulling away, shaking their head, screaming or throwing food your toddler can just sign “all done”.

You are making baby smarter.

 ASL is an official language, and teaching them signs, especially if you end up enjoying it and learning more of it yourself, goes a long ways towards teaching them to be bilingual.  This comes with all the IQ raising benefits of learning a second language.

They will talk sooner.

 It is a myth that teaching a baby sign will keep them from speaking.  In fact all of the research shows that infants that are taught sign learn to speak their primary language sooner than baby’s who are not taught.  Sign teaches your baby the power of words and how to use language.  They will want to use it more and more once they get the hang of it.  Your baby will speak the language they have been exposed to since their time in uterus, sign will not take over.  Unless of course ASL IS the primary language in  your home.  


ASL is a fun, interesting and complex language. Don’t put pressure on your or your baby to learn too much too fast, just enjoy the process.  Those first signs are just as exciting to see for mommy’s as those first words- even if baby is over a year before their first one appears. 

Happy signing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s