Baby development

The only 8 signs you need to teach your baby

Introducing a few hand signs can encourage babies to communicate, as well as improve parents’ ability to understand what they're trying to say. Plus, baby sign language can cut back on frustration-related crying, which is good for everybody.

The only 8 signs you need to teach your baby

Photo: iStockphoto

OK, is your baby saying “dog”? Or is it “Dad”? And how do you know if they’re trying to tell you they want more mashed sweet potato or want to get down from their high chair? Trying to decipher your baby’s first words and early communication cues can be tricky. Enter baby sign language:

Why should I teach my baby to sign?

Baby sign language can encourage babies to communicate, as well as improve parents’ ability to understand what their tots are trying to say, says Lee Ann Steyns, owner of Signing Babies, a Vancouver-based company that teaches baby sign language.

One of the biggest benefits is the possibility of fewer frustration-related crying jags. “Using sign language before they speak can dial down your baby’s frustration and dial up their confidence that you will listen and respond,” says Steyns. “Many parents report fewer temper tantrums in older babies who sign,” she says.

Learning sign language can give parents a confidence boost, too, especially first-time moms and dads. “Sign language can create a framework for how you go about your daily routines and help you feel like you’re guiding communication instead of just rolling with the punches,” says Steyns. In addition to helping you better understand each other, learning baby signs can also help with your baby’s developing motor skills and may even boost IQ.

mother and daughter work with preschool teacher. They are sitting at a table in the classroom working with educational toys. SDI Productions/ Getty Images

What exactly is baby sign language?

Baby signs are often based on American Sign Language (ASL), but some may teach a variation on it. The focus is on keywords that are central to your baby’s world (think “milk,” “up” and “done”) and very basic, without any of the advanced grammar or other body language nuances of full nonverbal speech. That said, babies who learn basic sign language can build on this as older kids, says Steyns.

There’s a misconception that babies who sign are somehow stalled when it comes to verbal communication. “The research is absolutely the opposite,” says Steyns. “Many babies who learn to sign actually speak earlier.”

mother playing with baby boy JGI/Jamie Grill/ Getty Images


When should I start baby sign language?

Around six to eight months old is a great time to start teaching your baby how to sign. “Babies are typically at a developmental stage where they are curious to communicate and pay more attention to things presented to them,” says Steyns.

But she recommends that parents gauge their own readiness, along with their baby’s because signing requires learning on their part and committing to a lot of repetition of those hand signs. Some parents are eager to start when their babies are just a few months old, while others wait until their little ones are closer to a year old (and showing signs of frustration) before they begin.

“It’s not too late if you wait longer than a year because then they can start combining hand signs with verbal cues,” she says.

Mother signing "more" to baby boy Jamie Grill/ Getty Images

Which signs should I start with?

Although any word that relates to your baby’s world can be helpful, there are a few that are particularly useful. “Functional signs, such as “milk” and “full,” are a great starting point,” says Steyns. “But the fun ones are actually important as well because they’re what your baby will likely be most interested in practising with you,” she says.

These may include signs like “bath,” if your little one loves tub time, or “dog,” if your pooch is already your baby’s best friend.

Introduce between one and three signs at a time, repeating them often as firm statements and saying and signing the words at the same time. “Avoid using the signs as questions because this can confuse your baby,” says Steyns.

In addition to practicing on your own, it may be worth signing up for an online or in-person course on baby sign language (if there’s one in your city) to ensure that you’re getting the gestures just right.

Before long (usually by 10 to 14 months), your baby will begin signing back to you. But keep in mind that, as with speech, their early versions of the words in sign language will often be a bit different at first. They may only be decipherable to you in the beginning, but that’s OK—just keep trying together.

Man communicating with his son in sign language Huntstock/ Getty Images

Teach them "milk"

Milk is one of the best signs to teach your baby early on, for many reasons. Of course, milk and formula are something that babies love and need, so the sign is very helpful. But also, because it will reward them with something they truly desire, babies learn this sign easily.

Just make the milk sign before feeding your child, and they'll soon start to do it whenever they start feeling a little hungry.


Teach them "more"

Another key sign, more gives babies so much more control over their lives. Since babies can't verbalize how they feel, it's hard to tell if they're done eating or if they stopped for some other reason. More lets them actually tell you what they need.

As they grow up, encourage your little one to do the more correct flat "O" shapes to help build up their dexterity.

Teach them "all done"

Like milk or moreall done is a perfect introductory sign. Think of it as showing that your hands are empty. Not only is all done easy to perform, but it's also widely applicable. If your baby is getting fussy in front of their plate, you can simply ask them if they're all done, and they'll eventually respond appropriately.

Many caregivers also like to use this sign for when something is gone or empty.

Teach them "pick me up"

Pick me up is probably one of the easiest signs for caregivers to remember, which also makes it simple to teach. Babies might struggle with the finger extension, but the intent should be pretty clear.

If you feel confident in your baby's ability to learn, you might also teach them the sign for down since the two are complementary. They'll use this sign when they're ready to get out of their car seat, baby crib or just have some affection.


Teach them "change diaper"

Starting to communicate about diaper changes is the first step toward full potty training. Though change is a pretty complex sign, some babies learn it surprisingly quickly because they want to get out of their dirty diapers.

It also helps show babies that the break from playtime or sleeping is only temporary, which can reduce the number of tantrums.

Teach them "mom" and "dad"

Every parent lives for the day that their baby says their first words, especially if that first word is "mommy" or "daddy." The signs for these words are just as rewarding. Since they're so simple, don't be surprised if these are the first signs your baby uses.

A great way to encourage its use is to simply say "Hey, baby! It's mommy," while performing the sign.

Teach them "play"

If your kid is anything like most babies, this sign will soon become their favorite. A lot of people like to think of this as the "hang loose" sign, but you can also remember it as two kids holding their hands up and waving around.

Since this sign takes quite a bit of dexterity, don't worry if your baby can't perform it right away. Even just waving both hands in the air is a great start.


Teach them "love"

Other signs might be more practical, but few are as incredibly rewarding as love. It can take some encouragement for babies to learn the meaning, but it'll all be worth it once they do. The signs for love and hug are extremely similar, so once your baby is old enough to notice the difference, it's easy to add on the other sign.

This article was originally published on Oct 01, 2020

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Karen Robock is a writer, editor and mom of two whose work has appeared in dozens of publications in Canada and the U.S., including Prevention, Reader’s Digest, Canadian Living, and The Toronto Star. Once upon a time, Karen was even the managing editor of Today’s Parent. She lives in Toronto with her husband, school-age daughters, and their two dogs.