Baby, Give Me a Sign

Our daughter has a lot to say. She’ll chatter animatedly to any available audience . . . she just doesn’t include many recognizable words in her conversation. At 16 months, her verbal vocabulary includes “mama” and “dada,” “hi,” “baby,” “no,” “cat,” and a couple of close approximations of “belly button” and “nose.” Fortunately, she isn’t limited in communicating by language – she can sign!

We started baby sign language with our little one when she was about 7 months old. Initially, we introduced just a few signs associated with her favorite activities: nursing and eating. She picked up the sign for “all done” first (waving her hands away from her body), providing a conclusion to mealtime we much preferred over the previous method of dumping whatever was left on the floor. Next, she added a sign for “drink,” adapting our example of a thumb to the lips to pointing with her index finger at her mouth while tilting her head back.

Other signs, like her sign for “nurse,” she created all on her own. I had been demonstrating a version of the sign for nurse that used a sweeping motion of a flat hand from the shoulder down over the breast, symbolizing letdown. My daughter never picked up the sign I showed her, instead coming up with something entirely different: her sign for “nurse” is an index finger pointing into the middle of her opposite palm. Emphatically. I don’t know how she arrived at that gesture, but what the sign used to represent any particular concept doesn’t matter as long as we know what it means.

Recognizing and responding to your child’s needs is a fundamental principle of the AP philosophy; sign language provides our baby an additional tool for expressing those needs when she can’t find the words. It also allows her to tell us about what she’s observing and experiencing – signing “dog” when we pass one on the sidewalk or hear barking outside, signing “hot” to describe her dinner as steam rises off the plate.

She has about 10 signs in her regular repertoire now, and she makes good use of each of them. We continue to show her signs for common objects or things she shows a special interest in, letting her decide which she wants to add to her “vocabulary.” Even as she can speak more words, she may continue to pick up additional signs and “talk” to us in a combination of words and signs. Whatever she wants to say, and however she chooses to “say” it, we’re listening. When do infants start talking? Most babies are babbling regularly by 6 months, making short strings of consonant-vowel sounds such as ba-ba, ma-ma and da-da. “It’s all practice because those babbles form the basis of his first words,” Casasola says. “Babies exposed to two languages will even babble in ways that are consistent with both languages.”

Jennifer blogs about parenting and photography at Postcards From the East End.

Author: API Blog

APtly Said, Formerly API Speaks launched in April of 2008 as part of Attachment Parenting International's larger effort to offer interactive content through their newly-redesigned web site: All contributors to APtly Said, as with so many of API's staff, are volunteers who donate their time and energy to promote Attachment Parenting world wide.

8 thoughts on “Baby, Give Me a Sign”

  1. I signed with both my kids. Years later (and years ago!) when my son was in pre-K at 4 yo, his teacher had a deaf son. Therefore the teacher was fluent in sign and signed with the kids. I was amazed at how many signs my son remembered even though it was years later and we weren’t signing a home anymore.

    Signing is a fantastic way to communicate with non-verbal babies and toddlers, eases or eliminates tantrums, and relieves frustration on both the child’s and the parents part that is caused by difficult communication. (Which is a LOT!) And it’s just totally fun to see what’s going on in their minds and what they’re thinking about!

  2. My son did the finger pointing in the palm of his other hand as well. He adapted this from the sign for “more”. He would use that whenever he was hungry and wanted more. He used other signs too but quit as soon as he got words for those things. I hope to use more with my daughter now.

  3. I love how much my 10 month old has to say using her “signs” I think it has made me a much better observer of my little one as well.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience with signing!

  4. My now 2 year old daughter probably knows over 80 signs (mainly due to the show “Signing Time!”). We started introducing signs around 7 months, but she really didn’t pick up her first signs until around a year. It surprised me that she wasn’t interested in learning what I saw as useful signs like eat, more, nurse, drink, etc., but instead chose to learn baby and hat as her first signs. I’ve heard this from other parents as well- that children often learn signs for things they want us to notice before they learn the signs for things they need. Or perhaps, it’s that children have a great need to share their view of the world with us. “Look, mom, a hat!!” 🙂

  5. I teach ASL to parents wanting to teach their children, and the most wonderful thing I have witnessed is the feeling of empowerment that a child has when they realize that Mom and Dad understand without using words. They understand at the level the child is at. The parents are entering THEIR world. I signed with my son, now 3, and to this day he still uses signs for what HE is interested in or for words he has a hard time saying. I love the window into his mind and what he finds to be interesting. What I also find facinating is how learning ASL as an infant develops the brain in a much different way. Verbal language is developed on the left side, learning ASL developes connections between the right and left sides of the brain resulting in a different way of learning language..that trickels down to being better at and enjoying reading more, easier time learning words..Studies show that infants that learn sign @2yrs old have about 40+ words than other 2yr old and at 3 they are at about a 4 yr old level. All a result of how the brain develops learning language with both sides of the brain. Now when we read, I sign the book and it makes it an interactive experience for him and makes reading more fun. I love he loves books.
    The other benefit I have found is that if a child knows asl, the can comunicate when they have pain and where it is. My son had a UTI at about 8 months old.He signed to me where the pain was and I took him to the Dr. When the Dr. asked how I knew he had a UTI I said, “he told me” and then the Dr. signed “where, hurt” and my son showed him. End result, my son had the begining of a UTI and we were able to treat it without antibiotics because he was able to let me know the second he was uncomfortable. His Dr. has said he wished more parents taught their children the sign for just this reason.
    Can you tell, I LOVE ASL FOR KIDS!!!!!!

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