How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language

Mom teaching child sign language

Verywell / Photo Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight / Getty Images

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

Babies can sign before they are developmentally able to express themselves verbally. So BSL lets infants as young as 6 months ask for things like milk or a diaper change, reducing overall fussiness and enhancing the infant-caregiver bond.

This article explains how to teach your baby sign language, the benefits of BSL, and which signs are most helpful as you begin.

Types of Sign Language

BSL is a specific form of sign language developed for use with preverbal infants. BSL is not the same as other sign languages used in the deaf community, such as ASL.

BSL
  • Used by babies to communicate with caregivers

  • Derived from ASL

  • No grammar rules

ASL
  • Language used in the American 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. Some baby signs are modified or simplified to make them easier for infants to repeat, and there are no grammar rules.

BSL is a supplement to the spoken word. It helps infants who can't form words communicate their needs with their caregivers. Babies generally stop signing when they develop the ability to speak.

Benefits of BSL

There is some controversy surrounding research on the benefits of BSL. One sticking point is that hearing people modify and use sign language intended for the deaf community. Another is that research on the topic has produced conflicting results.

Researchers acknowledge that BSL is a fun, engaging, and instructive way to interact with babies. However, they caution against promoting it to advance language, literacy, and cognition because it does not have empirical evidence to support those claims.

Anecdotally, plenty of people have experienced positive results from using BSL. "The biggest benefit of BSL is the bonding and connection that develops between adults and babies that use this early form of communication," says Sheryl White, certified instructor of Joseph Garcia's International Sign 2 Me Presenters Network. "Babies can become more secure with the trust that develops naturally."

Other benefits include better communication and less frustration.

Better Communication

The primary benefit of baby sign language is better communication between babies and their caregivers. Infants can understand spoken language long before they can talk, which is why it's so important to speak to babies from birth. Giving babies the tools to express themselves before they are verbal allows them to communicate better, too.

Less Frustration

If babies can understand words, the presumption is that they can conceive of ideas (like "I want more oatmeal"), but they can't directly express the idea before they are verbal. Sign language, then, offers an alternative to crying. Moreover, it lets a parent know what their baby needs.

When to Start Signing With Your Baby

Start signing with your baby when they are around 6 months old. This age is the ideal time since infants hit a developmental period for gestures at some point between 6 and 12 months, usually around the 9 month point. So, familiarizing your baby with some signs early will help them comprehend before they start to mimic.

"Babies usually start signing when they have developed the skill and are physically able to wave and clap intentionally," says White. "The exact age of this varies based on the individual baby's own timeline."

Sometime between 6 and 9 months, 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. However, 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 6 months. You can start as early as you'd like. Some parents find that signing from the start helps them develop the habit. This habit is important because consistency and patience are key in teaching your baby to sign.

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Step-By-Step for How to Teach BSL

To teach your baby BSL, decide which signs you want to use, learn how to gesture them correctly, and be consistent.

Choose the Most Useful Signs

It's a good idea to plan out the signs you will use ahead of time and choose signs 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.

Learn How to Sign

Watching videos can be very helpful when learning signs, as they often include a motion, which can be difficult to convey with a two-dimensional illustration.

While videos are a helpful tool for you, they are not suitable for your infant. Your baby learns best from direct interaction with you. So instead, use screens to help you understand what to teach your child.

Be Consistent

When teaching BSL, consistency is critical. When you want to introduce a sign, sign it every time you say the word, at the same time that you say the word. That way, your baby will learn to associate the sign with the word.

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

Get All Caregivers on Board

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 essential for all caregivers to be familiar with the baby's signs to communicate with them.

First Signs to Use

The most valuable 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 want to be held.

Here are some helpful ideas for first signs to teach your baby:

  • Milk
  • Cat or dog
  • Eat
  • Mommy
  • Daddy

BSL Table Signs

Sign language can help reduce behavior issues when it comes to feeding. For example, little ones often get worked up when they want more food. Without another way to express their desire, they may scream or cry to get their point across.

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

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

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

Potty Training Signs

Part of learning to use the toilet is communicating when you need to go. Babies become aware of their physical facilities earlier than they can say, "I have to go potty." Signing may allow you to succeed with potty training at an earlier age.

Potty signs to teach your baby:

  • Potty (Toilet)
  • Poop
  • Pee

Other Useful Signs

There are many other potential helpful signs depending on your family and your baby's unique needs or preferences. Some of them may include:

  • Help
  • Book
  • Thank You
  • Hurt

Since every family and baby is different, you should choose the signs that fit your baby's most immediate needs. Often, words that will limit frustration around eating, using the bathroom, or addressing family members are an excellent place to start.

What If Your Baby Won't Sign Back?

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

Sheryl White

Have fun with it and do not have expectations of when they will understand and sign back. Just use signs in your daily life and eventually they will catch on.

— Sheryl White

Your baby's first try at signing will not likely look exactly like the sign either. So, 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 enhance communication between you and your baby by bridging the gap between what they can understand and what they can communicate.

Signing will likely dissipate naturally once your little one can speak enough to express their needs verbally.

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 get their needs met with their spoken words.

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

A Word From Verywell

BSL is derived from ASL, and it is intended as a temporary form of communication for pre-verbal babies. Though can start at any time, an excellent time to begin signing with your baby is around 6 months old. Beginning early gives them plenty of time to observe and understand the signs before they start gesturing and mimicking, typically around 6 to 9 months old.

When teaching your baby sign language, consistency is the key. Always sign the word you want your baby to use every time you use it. Eventually, your baby will be able to communicate their needs with less frustration.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Seal B. About Baby Signing. 2010;15(13). doi:10.1044/leader.FTR5.15132010.np

  2. Michigan State University. Baby sign language: A helpful communication tool.

By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.

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Kathi Valeii is a freelance writer covering the intersections of health, parenting, and social justice.

 

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