How and When to Start Baby Sign Language

Learn the benefits of baby sign language and important tips on how and when to sign with your baby!

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You’ve probably heard about baby sign language or even seen a friend’s toddler signing “more” or “please” and thought teaching your own baby how to communicate would be a great idea. But chances are you don’t know much about sign language, or how and when to start baby sign language with your own little one.

If that sounds familiar, you’re definitely going to keep reading, as I’ve got answers to your burning questions about how to teach your baby sign language.

This is a guest post by Lane Rebelo, LCSW, of Tiny Signs. Lane is a licensed social worker and an award-winning baby sign language instructor. She is the author of the bestselling Baby Sign Made Easy: 101 Signs to Start Communicating with Your Child Now

Benefits of Teaching Babies Sign Language

There are so many amazing reasons to use sign language to communicate with your baby! There are some important benefits you’ll enjoy right away such as…

  • Reduced frustration for both baby and caregiver
  • Improved and earlier communication
  • Increased confidence in parental abilities
  • Enhanced connection and bonding

In addition to these rewards you’ll reap early on, research on signing with babies has shown there are some incredible long-term benefits as well! Children who signed as babies were found to …

  • Have larger vocabularies
  • Understood more words
  • Had stronger language skills overall, and
  • Used longer sentences
  • Were better spellers with larger vocabularies
  • Had higher reading levels
  • Expanded spoken vocabulary
  • Increased interest in books
  • Higher IQ

With all these incredible short- and long-term benefits, choosing to sign with your baby is a no-brainer! But honestly, my favorite thing about baby signing is that it’s FUN. Early communication opens up an incredible opportunity to peek inside your baby’s mind and literally see what he is thinking as he shares his thoughts through sign language.

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When to Start Baby Sign Language

The short answer: You can start anytime, as long as you have realistic expectations.

Here are the facts…

  • Most babies start signing back in the 8-12 month range (with 10 months being the average)
  • Some babies might start signing back as early at 5-6 months old
  • Other babies might not pick up signing until after their 1st birthday (and that’s ok!)

Just like other developmental milestones like sitting up, crawling and walking, all babies are different and have their own timeline. So go ahead and get started now, but if your baby is under 6 months, keep in mind that it will likely be some time before your baby starts signing back to you. But don’t give up! All babies will sign back if you stick with it.

Baby’s First Signs

One of the first decisions you’ll need to make as you begin signing with your baby is which signs to start with. Choosing the right signs to start with will have a direct impact on how quickly your baby signs back, so make sure you choose wisely.

I like to divide starter signs into two categories: Useful Signs and Playful Signs. Useful Signs are the practical words we use throughout the day with our babies. Some examples of great Useful Signs to teach your baby are:

  • MILK
  • EAT
  • MORE
  • ALL DONE
  • BED

You can learn how to do these signs in the free Online Video Dictionary at Tiny Signs.

The next category of signs are Playful Signs and are really the secret weapon to fast-tracking your success with baby sign language. Playful Signs are those that will motivate your baby to start signing back, and they are different for every baby. Some of my favorite examples of Playful Signs are:

  • DOG
  • LIGHT
  • BALL
  • BOOK
  • CAR

You can also find all of these signs and hundreds more in the free Online Video Dictionary at Tiny Signs.

If you’re wondering how many signs to start with, I recommend starting with a handful of signs. Enough to give you a little variety, but not so many that it’s overwhelming or difficult to remember them all. Four is a great number of signs to start with, just make sure to pick a couple from both the Useful and Playful sign categories.

How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language

Sharing sign language with your baby should be a fun and enjoyable activity for you both. Baby sign language builds on your baby’s natural ability to gesture – to wave, point, and clap. Have you ever seen a baby wave “bye-bye?” Do you think it was hard to “teach” that baby to wave? Of course not!

Babies instinctively mimic their caregivers, so if you model using a gesture (or sign) with a spoken word enough times, eventually your baby will do it all on their own. It’s that easy!

As for actual tips and techniques to teach your baby sign language, you’ll find many of them in my first book Baby Sign Language Made Easy, and even more strategies and examples in my online course, Tiny Signs Online.

But to help you get started now, here are a few tips to help you get started on the right foot:

Sign & Say the Word Together

When signing with your baby, always sign and say the word together. Babies learn language by watching and hearing you speak. Saying the word every time you sign it will increase your baby’s exposure to spoken language and also provide an opportunity to associate the spoken word with the sign.

Sign in Context

When you’re first introducing a new sign, always use it in context. Sign “milk” when your baby is feeding, sign “ball” when you or your baby is holding a ball. Sign “dog” when the dog is visible in the room, and so on. Signing in context will help your baby make the connection between the sign, word & object more quickly. Once your baby establishes the meaning of a particular sign/word, you can use the sign any time!

Sign in Your Baby’s Line of Vision

You might find that it can be tricky to get your baby to look at you when you’re trying to show them a new sign! When introducing a new sign, you want to put yourself (and especially your hands) into your baby’s line of sight.

One little trick you can try to is to make an interesting sound to get your baby to look at you. For example, if you baby is looking at a car, you can say “beep beep! vroom vroom!” which will likely make your baby turn to look at you. Once your baby’s looking at you, say and sign CAR before they turn away again. Voila!

Most Importantly, Have Fun!

If you want to succeed in signing with your baby, the absolute BEST thing you can do is make it fun. Signing should be playful and silly – never a chore. If you’re feeling tired & grumpy, or your baby’s having an “off” day, skip the signing and try again when you’re both feeling better. When signing is incorporated into playtime, storytime and songs, your baby will be eager to get in on the action. So don’t be shy! Let your inner goofball out and have a blast!

Baby Sign Language Printables

You might be wondering if you need some special tools to help you teach your baby. Parents often ask me about products like videos and flashcards to show their baby. However, YOU are your baby’s best teacher, and she will pick up signs best through fun and meaningful interaction with you better than anything out there.

That being said, as you start learning signs in the Tiny Signs Online Video Dictionary, you might find it handy to have a visual reminder to help jog your memory. That’s why I created my popular Baby Sign Language Printable Charts (for 10% off, use coupon code MOMBRITE760).

These printable charts are organized by theme and can be posted around the home or viewed on your tablet. My students love them because they remind them to incorporate signs throughout the day, and also provide a quick and easy reminder on how to do the sign. I think you’ll love them too!

Prepare to Be Amazed

Once you start signing with your baby, you’re going to be eager to know if it’s working. If you follow the above tips, you can be sure that it is!

Just be patient and remember that when your baby is developmentally able, he will make his first sign. Your patience and commitment will be rewarded with the amazing experience of knowing what your baby is thinking. You’ll enjoy communicating weeks or months before your baby is able to speak, eliminating needless frustration all around. I wonder what your baby’s first sign will be? Have fun!

If you need additional resources on baby sign language, check out a list of the best baby sign language books here.

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