Baby Sign Language: What is it and How to Get Started

Baby Sign Language: What is it and How to Get Started

Are you struggling to understand the needs of your infant? Check out baby sign language and how it might take some of the frustration out of parenting.

If you haven’t cried right along with your newborn while you desperately try to check their diaper, shove a bottle in their mouth and rock them all at once in the middle of the night, are you even a parent? We have all been there at one time or another and we all know how helpless and miserable that feeling can be in the early months of parenthood.

baby sign language a woman holding an infant

It can be incredibly difficult to figure out what your baby needs or wants before they are able to speak. What can you do about it? Waiting until they can verbally communicate is certainly an option and one that many new parents choose. But, what if you could teach your infant a few words of baby sign language?

How much easier would just a handful of signs make your life? How many fits and crying bouts could you steer clear of if you knew your 9-month-old needed milk or a diaper? Probably a whole lot. And with twins, even more!

So what exactly is the deal with baby sign language? How do you go about teaching it and what are the benefits to you and your baby? Check out some of these ideas to help you get started communicating with your infant using baby sign language today!

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What age should you start baby sign language?

The best part about baby sign language is that you don’t need to worry about your baby being too old or too young to get started. You can decide to get started teaching baby sign language virtually at any age. Use your own timeline and judgment to decide when the time is right for your family. Many experts suggest they might be ready to copy signs more quickly if they have already shown an interest in your hands, so that may help you to narrow down your readiness window.

Many babies can sign at about 8 months of age, long before they can actually speak to communicate. Keep in mind that just like with many other developmental milestones, this is merely an average and it is quite common for a baby not to pick up baby sign language until closer to their first birthday.

Twins may begin to use baby sign language at different times as well. One twin may pick it up at about 9 months and then the other may not until 13 months. It is very individual and as usual, you don’t want to compare your babies with each other or any other little ones you may know.

baby sign language a baby being held in a sitting position by a woman

How do I teach my baby sign language?

Teaching your baby sign language might be easier than you think. Most experts agree that by simply picking a couple of words and signing them each time you say them, your baby will pick up on their meaning.

Use words that your baby hears often. For example, the word “milk” would be a good one for any infant. You simply sign the word for milk, while saying the word, while also handing them their bottle at mealtimes.

Don’t start with more than a few words though as they get the hang of it. Before you know it, they just might learn dozens of words in baby sign language.

baby sign language a woman signing to a camera


Is baby sign language the same as ASL?

The short answer here is no. ASL stands for American Sign Language. It is the most commonly used form of sign language in the U.S. and is used in other English speaking countries (but not all) as well. ASL has its’ own grammar and proper sentence structure. Baby sign language does not. Baby sign language is just one word at a time so that hearing parents can communicate with hearing babies before they are able to speak to vocalize their needs and wants.

But think of it this way, is baby talk the same as speaking English? Sure. It’s just a more simple version of the English language. So while your 10-month old may not correctly sign “May I have some milk?” the sign for “milk” implies that they are asking for milk. The same is true when your 17-month old says “Milk, please.” It is their basic way of asking politely for milk, even though half of the sentence is actually missing. We give little ones leeway with regards to proper grammar and sentence structure while they are learning.

So no, technically baby sign language is not proper ASL, but the signs you teach should come from the language. When a parent or caregiver makes up their own signs it can cause confusion and frustration. You are more likely to forget the exact sign and then complicate the teaching process. It is much easier to use the established ASL signs for the most basic words your baby needs to know.

baby sign language a baby on a couch smiling

When should babies start learning words?

It is very common for most 1-year-olds to speak a few words. They will probably be a simple one or two-syllable word that will resemble a sound more than a word like “ma-ma” or “da-da”. That is not to say all babies will begin to speak at age one, but it is common. If you have concerns about your child’s speech, speak to your pediatrician.

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Now, knowing that your 1-year-old will have an extremely limited vocabulary (as in, almost non-existent) may encourage you to look into baby sign language. Remember, it is never too late to start!

The good news with baby sign language is that you don’t have to go “all in” with it. You can teach just a few of the most important words in your life and let the rest happen when their speech catches up. You might be surprised how helpful teaching just a half a dozen words will be for you.

Parenting is hard. Some days are harder than others. If you can do something to make that easier for you by increasing your baby’s ability to communicate their needs, it might be worth looking into.

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