The Basics (and Benefits) Of Baby Sign Language

baby girl signing with her mom and smiling
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As a parent, it can be super-frustrating when baby is wailing and you have no idea why. Is he hungry? Tired? Too hot? Packing a dirty diaper? It’s probably just as irritating for baby, who can get red-faced and teary-eyed when his message just isn’t getting across. You could simply wait it out until baby starts learning to speak, but the reality is you could be waiting seven months to a year just to hear a word or two. The good news? There’s a way you can start communicating with baby at an earlier age. It’s called baby sign language, and it could provide the tools you’ve been looking for to avoid frustration and keep the parent-baby bonding going strong.

In this article:
What is baby sign language?
When to start baby sign language
How to teach baby sign language
Baby sign language basics

What Is Baby Sign Language?

Baby sign language is a set of simple hand gestures and movements, otherwise known as signs, that correspond to common words you use with baby every day. It’s a helpful tool to enhance communication between hearing parents and babies who can hear but can’t yet talk.

Baby sign can use the exact same gestures as those used in American Sign Language, but not always. “Baby sign is not a technical sign language, such as ASL or BSL (British sign language), which are primarily used by the deaf community and are more complex, with grammar and sentence structure,” says Jann Fujimoto, CCC-SLP, a certified speech-language pathologist in Wisconsin. “It’s a looser version that that uses just signs for individual words.”

Academics began making powerful observations about how hearing families could benefit from using baby sign language around 200 years ago, thanks to the work of linguist William Dwight Whitney in the 1800s. But it wasn’t until the 2000s that baby sign language became readily available to parents through workshops, classes and books.

Benefits of Baby Sign Language

Baby sign language is thought to offer a bunch of potential short-term and lasting benefits. Being able to understand what your preverbal baby wants or needs—and allowing baby to express himself without the use of words—can go a long way in clearing up confusion, cutting down on aggravation and bringing you even closer to your child.

Some of the possible benefits of baby sign language are:

  • Increases baby’s ability to communicate before she can speak
  • Leads to fewer baby tantrums, since baby can get her message across
  • Lowers frustration for parents, since you can understand what baby wants or needs
  • Gives baby a head start in language acquisition
  • Strengthens baby’s cognitive skills
  • Enhances parent-baby bonding

Back in the late 1980s, Linda Acredolo, a University of California, Davis professor, and Susan Goodwyn, a professor at University of Southern California, Stanislaus, found that babies who used baby sign language actually learned verbal skills faster than those who didn’t sign. In a second study, they later checked in on those same children at age 8 and found that the babies who used sign scored higher on IQ tests than the non-signers.

Shira Fogel, a speech pathologist who founded Tiny Talkers, a baby sign language workshop program in Portland, Oregon, first became a believer in the benefits of sign language for babies after witnessing her first child’s remarkable progress. Her daughter made her first sign (milk) at 5.5 months, knew more than 100 signs at 12 months and could speak in full sentences by the time she was 18 months old. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics believes baby sign language can help bridge the communication gap and has given it its stamp of approval.

It’s worth noting, though, that not all academics agree that baby sign language offers proven benefits. While some studies (like the ones conducted by Acredolo and Goodwyn) have found significant upsides to using sign language for babies, other studies haven’t…

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