What Is Baby Sign Language?

Mothering signing with her infant

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What Is Baby Sign Language?

Baby Sign Language (BSL) is a modified version of American Sign Language (ASL) used to help preverbal infants communicate their needs to their caregivers.

Babies can sign before they are developmentally able to express themselves verbally. BSL lets infants as young as six months ask for things like milk or a diaper change, reducing overall fussiness and enhancing the infant-caregiver bond.

Baby Sign Language vs. American Sign Language

  • Used by babies to communicate with caregivers

  • Derived from ASL

  • No grammar rules

  • Language used in the deaf and hard of hearing community

  • Includes grammar rules

ASL is a language used by the deaf and hard of hearing community. It is a comprehensive form of communication complete with grammar rules and usage conventions. BSL is adapted from ASL, but it has a different purpose.

BSL is a supplement to spoken word designed to help infants who can't yet form words orally communicate their needs with their caregivers. Babies generally stop signing when they develop the facility to articulate.

Some baby signs are modified or simplified to make them easier for infants to repeat, and there are no grammar rules.

Benefits of Baby Sign Language

The primary benefit of baby sign language is better communication between babies and their caregivers. Infants can understand spoken language long before they can articulate, which is why it's so important to talk to babies from birth.

If babies can understand words, the presumption is that they can conceive of ideas (like "I want more oatmeal") but they cannot verbalize them. Sign language, then, offers an alternative to crying, which lets a parent know that their baby needs something, but often leaves them wondering exactly what.

In addition, signing may improve language development. Studies have shown that babies with a higher number of gestures at age 13-15 months had larger vocabularies at 18-20 months of age.

When to Start Signing With Your Baby

Four to six months is the ideal time to begin signing with your baby. At some point between six and 12 months, usually around the nine-month point, infants hit a developmental period for gestures.

This is the point when you will likely see your baby sign for the first time if you have introduced baby signs a couple of months preceding.

It is completely fine to start signing later when your baby is already gesturing. Regardless of when you begin, be ready to sign consistently for some time before your baby picks it up.

There is no harm in beginning earlier than four months. You can start as early as you'd like. Some parents find that signing from the start helps them develop the habit. This is important because both consistency and patience are key in teaching your baby to sign.

How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language

To teach a sign, sign it every time you say the word, at the same time that you say the word.

For example, when nursing or giving your baby a bottle, clearly say, "Milk," and make the sign for milk (an open and closed fist) concurrently. Build these signs into your daily routine.

It's a good idea to plan out the signs you will use ahead of time, and to choose signs that are relevant to your baby's needs. You may want to begin with just a few signs and add more as you get used to them. However, there is no such thing as too many signs for the baby—just as too many spoken words won't negatively impact spoken language.

When looking up the signs you would like to use with your baby, watching videos can be very helpful. Signs often include a motion, which is difficult to convey with a two-dimensional illustration. Videos are a useful tool for you, but not for your infant. Your baby learns best from direction interaction with you. Use screens to help you understand what to teach your child.

If other adults take care of your little one, it is ideal if they are on board with signing, too. The more your baby sees the signs, the more they will internalize them. It's also important for all caregivers to be familiar with the signs that the baby might use to communicate with them.

Baby's First Signs

The most useful signs to teach your baby are the ones that will help them get their needs met. Think of all the reasons your little one might fuss or cry. Maybe they are sleepy or their stomach is grumbling? Or perhaps they just want Mommy.

Here are some helpful signs to teach your baby from Baby Sign Language.com:

  • Milk
  • Sleep
  • Diaper
  • Mommy
  • Daddy

Baby Signs at the Table

Sign language can help reduce behavior issues when it comes to feeding. Little ones often get worked up when there is a tasty food they want more of, screaming or crying to get their point across.

On the other hand, babies often throw food off the high chair in an attempt to communicate that they are finished. BSL can solve these types of issues by giving your baby another way to express themselves.

These baby signs will help when your infant begins to eat solid foods:

  • Eat
  • More
  • Please
  • Water
  • All Done
  • Cereal
  • Avocado
  • Banana

Potty Training Baby Signs

Part of learning to use the toilet is being able to communicate when you need to go. Babies become aware of their bodily facilities earlier than they can say "I have to go potty." Signing may allow you to be successful with potty training at an earlier age.

Potty signs to teach your baby:

  • Potty (Toilet)
  • Poop
  • Pee

Other Useful Signs

Depending upon your family and your baby's unique needs or preferences, there are many other potential helpful signs. Some of them may include:

  • Help
  • Book
  • Thank You
  • Hurt

My Baby Isn't Signing Back, Is Something Wrong?

Don't be discouraged when your baby doesn't sign back right away or seem to react at all when you sign. Just like it takes time for babies to say their first words, they need time to observe and internalize signs before attempting to make signs themselves.

Your baby's first try at signing will not likely look exactly like the sign either. Be on the lookout for waves of the hand that may be attempts at signing, and offer lots of encouragement.

When to Stop Signing

Baby signs are intended to enhance communication between you and your baby by bridging the gap between what they can conceive of and what they can articulate.

Once your little can speak clearly enough to express their needs, signing will likely dissipate naturally.

That being said, there is no reason to stop signing if you don't want to! Signing has not been found to negatively impact oral language development. Your baby will likely stop on their own once they can get their needs met with their spoken words.

If you want to continue signing with your child, or you just want to keep signing certain words, go right ahead!

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2 Sources
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  1. Seal B. American Speech Language Association. About Baby Signing. Published November 1, 2010.

  2. Baby Sign Language. Baby Sign Language Quick Start. 2021.