The benefits of teaching your baby to sign

Story by Stacie Gaetz


Photos by iStock

There is nothing more frustrating than knowing your baby wants something, but not understanding what it is.

More often than not, it turns into a frustrating and confusing back-and-forth interaction that ends in tears (sometimes yours as well as theirs).

A child that is too young to communicate in any other way can learn to use special signs taught to them by caregivers to communicate their wants and needs, making life a lot easier for both of you.

Baby sign language is a set of simple hand gestures (signs) that correspond to common words you use with baby every day. Sometimes the baby signs are the same as those used in American Sign Language, but not always.

Jennifer Berg, parent mentor with Airdrie Community Links, says the benefits of signing with your child before they can talk are limitless.

“The bond between caregiver and child is strengthened, in part because of the face-to-face time that is built into teaching sign language and in part because of the direct attention you are giving your baby at times when you may not normally speak to them,” she says.

“From there, the infant develops increased communication skills, experiences reduced frustration, has higher confidence, and grows a large and complex vocabulary.”

She adds that incorporating actions when learning a new word helps your baby connect sounds with large and small motor actions.

“When a baby can share their world with the people who love him, there is a sense of excitement and connection that may not be as strong otherwise,” Berg says.

“All caregivers want to understand what their baby is saying to them – this is one of the most efficient and relationship strengthening ways to do that.”


When are they ready?

She says the age a child can learn to sign depends on many things including how often you sign to them, how incorporated signs are in your daily activities, their temperament and more.

“Typically, if caregivers offer communication with the support of sign language at an early age (say six months), you may start to see return signs around 11 to 13 months,” she adds.

“However, if you introduce signs around nine months, you may very well see signs returned within the same age frame. Babies have the ability to comprehend sign language before they may be physically capable of returning the sign, in the same way that they understand many more spoken words before they are able to verbally express them.”

So, if age isn’t always an indication, how can you tell if your baby is ready to learn to sign?

“When you notice your baby watching your hands as you speak in conversation or see them eyeing up the movements of your mouth and eyes, this is a good time to really emphasize your words and incorporate some sign language,” says Berg.

Community Links offers a Sign, Say & Play program that uses some modified signs to accommodate a baby’s physical development. The signs are based off of American Sign Language, with some minor changes to allow for caregivers and babies to have the most success in learning and using the signs.

In-person classes are currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic but, check Airdrie Community Links website often for updates.


Myth Busted

Berg says there is a common misconception that introducing sign language to infants will hinder their spoken language skills.

“This is proven to not be true,” she says.

“In fact, research indicates that your child’s vocabulary will be larger and more complex. This, along with the multitude of other benefits that come with infant sign language, make the small amount of time you spend incorporating it into your parenting routine well worth it.”

To view videos of Airdrie Community Links Sign, Say & Play program, click here.


Tips for teaching your child to sign

  • Use signs that you easily remember.
  • Use the word and the sign together – repeat it once or twice.
  • Incorporate signs into your daily routine as much as possible.
  • Be excited when using the signs and even more excited when you see that they understand them or return them.
  • Have all caregivers in your baby’s life use the same signs when conversing with them.
  • Sing – use song to emphasize the word and the sign.
  • Look at your baby’s face when talking – emphasize the shape of your mouth and slow your speech when using the sign.
  • When your baby shows you a sign, let their version of the sign become your version.
  • Enjoy the moments – According to Berg, if your little just isn’t into it right now, that’s OK. “Like almost everything with parenting, be flexible. Continue offering opportunities for your little one and take joy in the process.”


Top 5 signs to teach baby

  1. More
  2. Milk
  3. Bath
  4. Book
  5. Sleep