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Less frustration, more communication: How to use baby sign language with your child

Mother and toddler using sign language

As parents, we’ve all been there – your baby is upset and screaming, and you just want to yell, “Tell me what you want!” Adding a few basic sign language words to your child’s vocabulary can help ease this frustration for both of you and encourage your child’s verbal development as well. 

For most kids, there is a gap between their receptive language (understanding what you say to them) and expressive language (being able to communicate their own needs to you). Often, this happens between the ages of 1 and 2, when language skills are growing every day but may not be keeping up with your child’s cognitive ability. They know what they want, they just can’t tell you! 

Using sign language with your baby or toddler is a great way to help bridge this gap and give them tools to communicate what they want. While it’s never too early to start, around age 6 to 8 months is a good time to begin adding a few basic signs into your daily routine. Mealtime offers the perfect opportunity to try signs like “more,” “please” and “all done.” Simply make the sign when you say the word, and your child will often pick it up quickly – especially when they realize it helps them get what they want! 

Some parents worry using sign language with their baby will slow down their spoken language. Actually, the opposite is true: incorporating signs can enhance your child’s verbal language growth. Much like children in bilingual families, kids who use sign language tend to have less frustration because they have more options to communicate with those around them. 

Your pediatrician will usually ask about language development at your well-child visits. Generally, most toddlers will be saying at least 3 words by 15 months and 2-word phrases by age 2, but all kids grow at their own pace. For kids whose verbal skills are delayed, signing can be a great tool for alternative communication, and gestures/signs count as words. If you or your child’s doctor have concerns about their language development, First Steps (Missouri) or Infant-Toddler Services (Kansas) is a free resource to provide support for your family. 

There are many books, videos and websites out there to help you get started with signing. One of the best ways to learn together with your baby is to read board books with signs included. Most baby signing resources are based on American Sign Language (ASL), but it’s OK if your child creates their own version of a sign. You can share this information with other caregivers, such as grandparents and childcare providers, so everyone is on the same page.  

Whether you add just a handful of everyday signs or learn every animal in Old McDonald’s farm, your baby will love the added connection and communication with you. 

MD, Pediatrician

Children's Mercy Primary Care Clinics