Are you curious about baby sign language? Maybe you recently saw a sweet baby sign “milk” to her mama at an impressively young age, or maybe you are wondering how to teach baby sign language because your little one is getting frustrated since they aren’t using words just yet.
You also might be wondering about baby sign language for a completely different reason! I don’t know that. But what follows is a great guide to teaching your little one baby sign language.
Why Baby Sign is Great
Baby sign language has definitely become more popular in the last several years and for good reason! Children can often pick up baby signs faster than they can say their first words.
It’s a great way to get your child to communicate so you can know what they want/need. I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to baby sign because I think it’s so wonderful! (Please don’t listen to the naysayers that tell you it will slow down your baby from using real words, because it’s just not true.)
Read on for some easy reading tips on how to teach baby sign language so you and your little one can get started signing right away.
Who Baby Sign Language Is For
Baby sign language can be for just about any child!
You might choose to start baby sign language when your baby is little to get a headstart on communication. Baby sign is amazing because most children can use sign language BEFORE they can use spoken words.
Baby sign language can also be for children that are behind in using their speech and language. If your child is not meeting milestones in communication, then baby sign can be a great way to help them!
Related Article: How to Help My Late Talker
When to Start
First of all, it’s never too early to start signing with your baby. It’s also never too late. (Hey, if you want your teenager to use baby sign instead of sassing off, be my guest!).
I would say the ideal age to start signing with your baby is around 6 months. I will warn you that if you start to use sign language this early, it may be a little while before your baby uses it independently. But introducing it early will give your little one an advantage.
Basically, the best day to start is TODAY!
I want to put in a small little disclosure right here. If your baby is not going to be using sign language as their main form of communication throughout their life, you really have some freedom in this area. (If your child is deaf and will be using sign language as their first language, I suggest a different approach than what I will outline here.) If your child is deaf or hard of hearing the National Association of the Deaf is a good place to start.
How to Teach Baby Sign Language
First Step: Choose a Sign
Once you’ve committed to trying out baby sign, you have to figure out which signs to teach first. There are a few that I think are good to start with, but ultimately you have to decide what you think will be most helpful for you and your sweet baby.
Things to help you pick your first sign:
- Pick a sign that will be motivating for your child. It’s important for them to make the connection that using the sign will help them get what they want. (And getting what you want is super motivating!)
- Choose a sign that they will have many opportunities to use. Don’t start with a sign like “chocolate cake” because you won’t get to use this sign very often (unless you let your child eat chocolate cake daily, and that’s another issue entirely).
- Decide if you want to use a broad sign like “more” that can be used in many contexts, or something more specific like “block”. Both can be good places to start, as long as you are consistent with using them.
- Choose a sign that you can model frequently for your child. They have to be able to see the sign used, in context, many times before they will try using it on their own!
My personal favorite sign to start with is definitely “more”. This sign can be used over and over again to get whatever it is baby wants more of, so it’s super motivating!
Another great sign that has wide use is “help” (help with getting something out of reach, help with fixing a toy, help with getting picked up).
Another highly motivating sign for little ones is “milk”. It’s easy and something they have a lot of every day.
The last one of my top favorites would have to be “eat”. And I like it for the same reason I like the other signs-your child will want to use it because they want to eat.
Your first task is to pick which sign you want to start with. (I would say you could even start with two, but definitely don’t overdo it!)
Start Modeling the Sign
Now that you’ve picked the sign(s) you want to start with, how do you get started?
First, you have to use the sign yourself. Baby will not just start signing because you show them a flashcard! (PS I actually abhor flashcards! Your baby needs to see you using signs.)
That means you should sign when you are doing things with your baby-eating, playing, drinking, etc.
When you start modeling the sign language, your baby will begin to see how it works. Don’t just use the sign a few times and call it good, use it tons of times! And it’s super important that every time you use the sign, you say the word that goes with it.
Ultimately our goal is for your child to use words, so you have to help them connect the sign to the spoken word.
For instance, if you are giving your baby another bite of pear, you can do the sign and say, “More. You want more pear.” Then immediately give them more pear.
Be sure that you quickly give them what they asked for because this will help them connect the meaning of the sign to the action or object. This helps your little one see how to use it, when to use it, and what it sounds like and looks like. You just need to lay the groundwork for them.
When to Use Baby Sign
Then, you need to think about a few activities that are really motivating for your child. For a lot of little ones, that’s eating or playing with a favorite toy. Choose an activity that will be repetitive so your wee one can have plenty of chances to use the sign you are working on.
I like to start with food because I know that there will be lots of chances to use the baby sign and because kids love food. It’s a definite win/win! (Although you know your little one best! If they get flustered during mealtime, it may not be the best activity to start with. You could easily try playtime instead.)
Helping Your Child Use the Sign
Next, you can help your baby learn the sign by using something called “hand over hand”-it just means that you use your hands to help them make the sign with their own chubby little fingers. It’s very sweet to see them try it out!
The best way to do hand over hand is to come behind your baby and put each of your hands over their hands. You kind of wrap them in a bear hug from behind, so that your arms are over their arms. This allows you to not just move their hands, but to help them move their arms in one coordinated gesture that results in the sign.
You don’t need to do hand over hand every time (thank goodness, because that would be a lot of getting up and sitting back down again). Just do the hand over hand a few times when you are first teaching them how to use the sign by themselves. As your child continues to learn the sign, you can use the hand-over-hand technique less frequently.
Once you’ve helped them practice making the sign using hand-over-hand, start helping them understand what the sign means by using it in action. Get out a yummy snack that you have control over-so think foods like cereal, or something you have to spoon-feed them.
Make sure it’s something your child definitely likes so they will keep asking for it. (I doubt they will want to use their sign if you make them ask for more broccoli!) Then you can set the food out in front of them so they can see it plainly but out of reach so they can’t get grabby. Give them a few bites so they know it’s a real treat. Then ask, “Do you want more?”, and wait for a few beats while you look at them expectantly to see if they do the sign on their own.
Honestly, if they do it the first time on their own, that’s a HUGE WIN and your child might just be a communication wizard. (Or you are! Way to go mama!) More than likely though, it won’t happen the first time you ask or even the 15th time you ask. But when it happens, you will rejoice because seeing your sweetie communicate like that is just the best!
Reinforcing the Little Wins
Anyway, before they start doing it on their own, you will likely have to give them some help. When you ask the question and wait expectantly, but nothing happens you reach over and help your child use the sign by forming their little hands into the sign. Then you act like they did it on their own and you get over the top excited and say something like, “Wow! You said “more”, now you can have more of your snack!” Remember, you being excited will get them excited. It’s one of my favorite things about kids! You will likely have to repeat this step multiple times before they totally get it.
A small warning here though- DO NOT GO OVERBOARD! Don’t make them try to sign “more” (or “eat” or ”drink” or anything else) EVERY SINGLE TIME they want something. That would be complete torture and may result in a meltdown.
Think about it-one day your mommy gives you everything you need just because you give her that look, and the next you are required to try something new and hard that you don’t understand to get the same thing you got yesterday for free. That’s just not fair!
So give them a few “freebies” and pick out one activity or one meal per day where you will help them to sign or ask them to sign. This does not mean that you stop signing though. You should use the baby sign as much as you can to help them get lots of exposure to it.
Keep on Signing
So they finally made the sign for the first time ever?!? HOORAY! Way to go mama, you did it! What now? Well, now that you know they can do it, require them to do it more often. If you know they can sign “more”, make them wait to get that next spoonful of food until they sign.
They can sign “milk”? Great! If they want milk, remind them they can ask using their hands. Help them to recognize the power they now have to ask for what they want! (Therein lies the magic of communication and the reason I am a complete nerd about all of it.) Again, don’t drive them bonkers about it, but push them to keep using it more.
Keep adding to their sign vocabulary. You can get more specific as your child masters more signs. You can teach them apple, banana, play, outside, whatever you want. This way when your child wants something, THEY CAN TELL YOU! It’s such an amazing transformation from that helpless (albeit sweet) little one to a growing and independent toddler. If you want more ideas for which sign to use check out this kid-friendly board book or this more advanced book so you can learn tons of wonderful signs.
What age should you start baby sign language?
Babies are ready for sign language at about 6 months. At this point, they are able to pay more attention to things going on around them and may begin to understand the connection between signing and actions or objects. Your baby will not immediately start to sign, but starting early will lay a great foundation!
Can signing delay speech?
Sign language does not delay speech. There are several research articles that prove sign language does not hinder speech production, but can actually help it! Your child will learn that they can control their own environment by using communication (either sign or speech).
How to teach baby sign language:
1. Choose the sign you want to start with. 2. Begin by modeling the sign. 3. Give tons of opportunities to use the sign. 4. Use hand-over-hand sign language to help your baby learn the sign. 5. Reinforce attempts to use the sign, even if it’s not accurate. 6. After your baby has mastered one sign, introduce more!
You Got This!
Congrats! You now have the best baby sign language help with all the tools and power to help your sweetie communicate! It will open up a whole new world for you. If you are wanting more great ways to help your little one use words, check out my post here. You got this, mama!