Baby Sign Language


I've heard of using "baby sign language" - even with hearing kids. Does it work? Does it help? Thanks so much for your input.

Dr. Greene's Answer

Many of the emotional meltdowns children experience between about 9 and 30 months old bubble up from the frustration of not being able to communicate. Their ideas far outstrip their language skills. The “terrible twos” are less terrible the more children learn how to get across their intense and conflicting thoughts.

Baby sign language is a wonderful way to do this. Shaking the head or moving the hand is far easier to learn than the intricate manipulation of the lips, jaw, and tongue necessary for each new word. Large muscle coordination is learned before small muscle coordination – at about the same time kids want to express themselves.

Before their first birthdays, most babies are interested in learning a few high impact words: “No,” “bye-bye,” and the names of the important people and animals in their lives. Parents waving with each goodbye, shaking the head with each “no,” and petting the back of the hand when talking about the kitty will make this much easier. You may also want to pick out signs to indicate each of the other family members.

Best Baby Sign Language

The signs used by your family don’t need to match anyone else’s. Each sign is most effective if it is natural, simple to perform, and if everyone in the family uses both the word and the sign every time. In other words, don’t say “kitty” without petting the hand and don’t pet the hand without saying “kitty.”

If you want to select new signs over the next several months, it will be important to watch and observe what your child seems to want to communicate about. Most children would like simple ways to express basic requests next, such as “I’m hungry”; “I’m thirsty”; “change me”; “pick me up”; “put me down”; or “take me outside”.

They might simply begin to touch the hand to the mouth whenever they say “eat,” tilt the head back when they say “drink,” and pat their bottoms when they say “diaper.”

Transitions can also be tough for children at this age, so a simple sign for “all done” can be very useful (perhaps outstretched palms or tapping the wristwatch).

These very simple maneuvers create rewarding ways for parents to connect with their children. They make an already magical time even richer, deepening family bonds. As older children get involved, not only can baby signs lessen temper tantrums and frustration in the little ones, but they can ease sibling rivalry as well.

The book Baby Signs, by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, is a terrific resource for parents with children under 3. For children who attend schools that use American Sign Language (ASL), ASL can afford the same benefits as baby signs as long as the signs are simple.

Last medical review on: June 18, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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