Sign Language for Babies

Teaching Baby Sign Language

Why does your baby throw temper tantrums?

Likely as a result of the frustration that he/she feels due to the gap between his/her desire to communicate and ability to do so. That is why baby sign is such an amazing communicative tool!!!

Since hand-eye coordination develops sooner than applicable verbal skills, infants can learn simple signs for common words such as EAT, SLEEP, GIVE ME, MORE,MILK, PLAY and ALL DONE before they are able to produce understandable speech.

This ability to communicate via baby sign relieves the baby’s frustration, and consequently the parent’s frustration, thus resulting in a closer parent/child bond (5).

Why is it that babies can communicate with signs before they can talk?

First, lets hone in on pre-linguistic development, which occurs during the first 10-12 months of life. What exactly does pre-linguistic development look like, or rather sound like?

Pre-linguistic development is characterized by reflexive sounds, such as crying,burping, coughing and sneezing, as well as cooing, vocal play and babbling; all of which are essentially tools for exercising the articulators.

Babies do not have the fine motor skills in their articulators to produce spoken language.

According to Dr. Joseph Duffy of the Mayo Clinic, “Speech and language are hugely complex. Just to speak requires activating 100 muscles between the lungs and lips to produce at least 14 distinct sounds per second.”(3)

What are the stages of pre-linguistic language development?

Babies begin with vegetative babbling, which is essentially "exercising" their articulators in the back and then front of the oral cavity. They then start to practice making speech sounds by connecting a consonant with a vowel and repeating it at around 6 months of age. This stage is called reduplicative babbling.

Similarly to speech development, infants demonstrate predictable and stable hand-shapes while signing during the same months of reduplicative babble when they demonstrate predictable and stable consonants 4 and before the onset of first words.

Therefore, babies have the gross motor skills and hand eye coordination to move their hands, or produce baby sign, significantly earlier than they acquire their first words. That being said, the gestures that they can make at that time must be adapted to their motor development.

Which signs are best to teach a pre-linguistic baby?

When choosing which signs to teach your baby, it’s important to pick the simplest hand-shapes/movements possible. Just like babies develop spoken language at their own pace, step-by-step, they acquire the articulatory skills for signs at variable rates as well(2) . For this reason, don’t be afraid to get creative and simplify borrowed signs or come up with your own!

But if you would prefer some guidance in which signs to choose first, we recommend that you start with a more general sign, such as GIVE ME or MORE, that can be used in various contexts to request many different things. Both of these sign shave relatively simple hand-shapes as illustrated below. Then consider your baby’s interests or desires, as the more interested your baby is in an item, the more likely he/she is to request it using the corresponding sign. If you are still stumped as to which signs to start with, some signs with simple hand-shapes that are represent typical items in a baby’s routine include EAT, MILK, SLEEP, PLAY, ALL DONE and HELP.

Hand-shapes for Signs Borrowed from American Sign Language (ASL):

GIVE ME: Start by making an open handed posture with one hand with the palm facing the chest. The hand moves from in front of the chest towards the chest to realize the sign.

MORE: Connect the thumb and 4 fingers of each individual hand to make a rounded hand-shape. Move the fingertips of the left and right hands towards one another.Repeat his movement once or twice.

EAT: Connect the thumb and 4 fingers of one hand to make a rounded hand-shape.Move the fingertips of that hand towards the mouth.

MILK: Make a fist with one hand with the thumb facing upwards. Squeeze the fist once or twice – similar to the action of milking a cow, but not quite as exaggerated.

SLEEP: Tilt your head to one side. Take the two hands, palms together, and place them under your cheek on the side that you are tilting towards.

PLAY: Extend your thumbs and pinky fingers outwards while the index, middle andring fingers are folded forward towards your palms. Rotate the hands several times so that the thumbs and pinky fingers move side to side. This sign is typically realized with two hands simultaneously, but can be done single-handed if necessary.

ALL DONE: Take two hands in an open handed, finger spread posture and move them away from you; first with your palms pointed towards your chest, then with the palms pointed downward.

HELP: Take the left hand in an open handed posture palm facing upwards and make a fist with your right hand and place it on your left palm with the thumb extended and pointing upwards. Move the right hand upwards keeping the thumb extended.

1. Bonvillian, Orlansky, & Novak (1983) and Folven, Bonvillian, & Orlansky (1985) as cited by:Seal, B. (2010). About Baby Signing. The ASHA Leader, 15, online only.doi:10.1044/
2. Meier (1991) and Meier & Newport (1990) as cited by: Seal, B. (2010). About Baby Signing.The ASHA Leader, 15, online only. doi:10.1044/
3. Neergaard, L. (2016, February 15). Mystery brain disorder robs patients of their words[Online Article]. Retrieved from
4. Seal, DePaolis, Koegler, Hudson & Pustinovich (2009) and McCune & Vihman (2001) as citedby: Seal, B. (2010). About Baby Signing. The ASHA Leader, 15, online only.doi:10.1044/
5. Vallotton C.D. & Ayoub, C.C. (August 2010). Symbols Build Communication and Thought: TheRole of Gestures and Words in the Development of Engagement Skills and Social-EmotionalConcepts During Toddlerhood, Social Development 19:3, 601-626.

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