How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language, According to Experts

By Published On: August 25th, 2023

Until your little one can articulate their needs with words, sign language can help them communicate.

Imagine a world where your baby could simply tell you what they want when they want it. Just think of all of the stress and sensory overload you could avoid if, instead of letting out shrieking cries, your little one could simply ask for a cup of milk. Sounds like a dream, right? Well, thanks to the development of baby sign language, effectively communicating with your baby before they utter their first words is not so far-fetched.

Since tots are able to make gestures and use their fine motor skills long before they’re able to initiate coherent verbal language, baby sign language is a great communication tool. It allows them to gesture in a way that caregivers can understand—and it comes with the added benefit of bringing a little peace to the home. “Sign language should lower your child’s frustration level because they are able to express their needs before they are able to verbally articulate them,” says Donna Whittaker, vice president of curriculum and education at Big Blue Marble Academy.

Of course, like any new skill, getting to a point where your baby can use sign language effectively takes some work and dedication. But don’t worry, you only have to teach your babe a handful of simple signs to reap the rewards of this amazing form of communication.

What is the Difference Between ASL and Baby Sign Language?

American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language that uses hand signs and gestures and facial expressions to communicate. It’s often used to converse with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, and it’s made up of thousands of signs. Additionally, ASL is primarily used in the United States and Canada, as each country has its own version of sign language that aligns with their dialect.

In many cases, ASL is considered a foreign language, so if you’re reading this and panicking over the thought of teaching your baby (and possibly yourself) an entirely foreign language, don’t worry—baby sign language is not nearly as comprehensive. “ASL and baby sign language have different purposes and complexity,” explains Lauren (Starnes) Loquasto, Ed.D., PhD, senior vice president and chief academic officer at The Goddard School. “ASL is intended to be a sole language, whereas baby sign language is intended to reinforce oral language in simple motions that young children can mimic.”

Whittaker echoes this and further explains, “Baby signs are used in conjunction with spoken words and are typically used one or two at a time, whereas ASL tends to be much more complex, linking words into sentences and no words being spoken.” Still, while it is a much more simplified version of ASL, all of the signs used in baby sign language come from ASL signs.

What’s the Best Age to Teach Baby Sign Language?

While your little one won’t be able to understand (and certainly not use entirely) baby sign language by 3 months old, Jennifer Romanoff, vice president of curriculum at Lightbridge Academy, says it’s a good time for caregivers to start demonstrating the signs as they speak. “At this point, [a baby’s] vision has become clearer and they can see at a greater distance,” she explains, adding, “A baby’s language development is mostly through visual and auditory observation during the first year, so introducing sign language as early as possible will provide them tools to use earlier as both large and small muscles develop before their ability to express clearly through speech.”

If your hands are a little too full to get started that early, don’t fret because both Dr. Loquasto and Whittaker say around 6 months is the sweet spot. “At this age, babies are beginning to use their hands to reach and grab and can pay attention to objects and people,” says Whittaker. However, she reminds parents that if they’re still not in a position to start teaching sign language at 6 months of age, that’s OK. “You can start anytime,” she says, “Your child will still reap the benefits of signing.”

It’s important to note that your baby may not sign back immediately, even when using simple gestures, and that’s OK. “Young children constantly observe their surroundings and absorb their environment, so your two-way communication is in sight, even if it takes longer than expected. Consistency is critical to creating the interaction,” says Laura Berg, author of The Baby Signing Bible. “The key is not to give up. I’ve never seen a baby not sign whose parents are consistent and didn’t give up too early.”

Whenever you decide to start, whether it’s when your baby is 3, 6, or 9 months old, Dr. Loquasto emphasizes the importance of speaking clearly while also signing to also encourage your child’s speech development and language skills. “Adults should always speak clearly and ensure they are signing in a way that does not obstruct the infant’s view of the adult’s mouth,” she says, “The spoken word is the goal, and the sign is a reinforcement of the spoken word.”

What Is the First Sign a Baby Should Learn?

There are many benefits of baby sign language, but it’s primarily about helping little ones express their needs, so the best signs to start with are the ones that will allow them to get their most basic needs met. “The initial signs should be related to key needs, which usually are related to feeding, diaper changes, and caregivers,” explains Dr. Loquasto. “The most common initial basic signs are ‘more,’ ‘milk,’ ‘change,’ ‘mom,’ and ‘dad,’” she says, adding, “but teach signs that are most relevant to your infant.”

At Lightbridge Academy, Romanoff says, “we also like to add social and life skill signs such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.” “All done” is another good sign to start with, according to Whittaker. “‘All done’ is a sign that empowers your infant to let you and others know when they are finished with what is happening, like eating,” she says. However, while it’s an excellent sign to teach, “Don’t be surprised when they use it to inform you that they are ‘all done’ with you putting on their shoes or ‘all done’ being in the car seat,” she warns. “This may be slightly frustrating for you, but the fact that your child understands the meaning of the sign and can use it in the proper context is a victory.”

Prioritizing signs that help you clearly understand what your baby needs is a good idea, but you can introduce as many as you’d like (and can) as they come up. Other signs to introduce include specific foods, such as “banana,” “apple,” or “cracker,” favorite toys and animals, and regular activities, like “bathtime,” “book,” and “sleep.” According to Berg, teaching signs for activities is beneficial because it will help your baby learn routines and understand (and ultimately anticipate) what is coming next.

As your baby continues to get exposure to the signs, they will be able to correlate them to their meaning, and you’ll find them using them more and more—which will make everyone’s lives a little easier until your tot becomes more verbal. And if you find that your baby isn’t making the signs perfectly, it’s nothing to worry about. Whittaker emphasizes that the goal of baby sign language is not to teach your child perfect signing but to be able to “decipher what your child is trying to communicate” to you.