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Should I teach my baby to sign?

March 30, 2015

We have posted previously on the “” and ways to sidestep the frustration that comes at that time of life. I often educate parents that it’s not a behavior problem; it’s a communication problem.  Have you ever found yourself at the pantry door with a child who lays on the floor because the choices are too many and they know what they want, but they just can’t tell you? Parents report this to us all the time, and you are not alone. Unbeknownst to most new parents, children are able to understand language as early as 6 months, but the ability to speak requires complex fine motor skills that don’t develop until much later. The result is frustration and tantrums.

However, the motor skills required to use sign language develop much sooner than spoken language. Children who learn baby sign language can start using signs as early as 6 to 9 months! The result is a baby who can express her wants and needs and a family who can effectively communicate with each other. The key words here are “effective communication.”

Baby sign language won’t improve intellect, language development or literacy skills, but it has been proven to enhance effective communication among 9 to 24 month-old children. Many basic signs resemble what they mean, and therefore put the language and the request together in a meaningful way that helps everyone to understand.

Researchers have determined that a child’s vocabulary of signs at 13 to 15 months of age is often reflected in the child’s verbal vocabulary by the time they are 18 to 20 months of age. Similarly, another report, found that the number of gestures babies used at 14 months of age favorably resembles their verbal vocabulary size at kindergarten. The use of signs (with typically developing children with normal hearing) is most effective between ages 12 and 15 months in helping a child with naming objects within their environment and making requests. Be aware that this tool will be short-lived and will begin disappearing as your child begins to use spoken words and spoken language.

There are many products on the market that may lure you into spending a lot of money to teach your baby to sign. Be aware that they are not all necessary and remember that the intent is “effective communication.” Once your child is speaking for herself, the need for signs diminishes and eventually disappears.

You can find resources for the American Sign Language (ASL) gestures on the web, with use of apps, and through various Baby Sign books and DVDs. In the table found in this post are some suggestions of developmentally appropriate signs to get you started as found on the American Speech Language Hearing Association website.