Five Tips for Teaching Your Baby Sign Language

One of the biggest things that has helped me to not feel like my toddler is a total caveman was to teach him sign language. While Eli's not likely to be a certified ASL teacher anytime soon, he can actually communicate his wants and needs fairly well to me, just by knowing a few signs. It has saved both of us tons of frustration, and I'm amazed at how well he can communicate to me with no verbal skills. I started teaching him around eight months, but really became more dedicated to teaching him around nine months, especially as we ramped up solids, and by 10 months he could sign, "more" back to me. Today, Eli knows these words: more (Which when he signs it, also means "I want that," "Do that again," and sometimes "food." Lots of context clues to decipher what it means.), food, milk, drink (aka water), book and bath.

When I first set out to teach him sign language, I thought I would teach him a whole bunch of words, but really, once he learned the above words, I stopped. He's started speaking verbally (Up to four words consistently now!) and the words he can sign are what I'd say the most common toddler terms. Since he and I can communicate fairly easily, I figured I'd stop there, but I know he has the capacity to learn more if I were to teach him.

Here are a few tips on how I taught Eli sign language.
  1. Repetition. By far the most important factor, I started by signing "more" every time I gave him something else to eat. Since we did Baby Led Weaning, I started just giving him a couple pieces of food at a time. Once they were eaten but before I would hand him more food, I would say "more" aloud and make the sign a few times. I did the same thing with "milk" and "drink" (which in our house means water.) I also signed "more" anytime I thought it applied, like when we finished a book and were going to read another, or when we were tickling him and I could tell he wanted more. 
  2. Make it interactive. Sometimes, I know Eli understands a sign when I do it, but he won't do it himself. I started guiding his hands to make the signs, which helped him feel the movement and he usually started actually signing it soon after.
  3. Always sign in context. Especially at the beginning, make sure you're always doing the signs where they apply. When I was teaching him to sign "bath," I wouldn't do it until we were in the bathroom with the water running in the tub. But now I say, "Bath?" and he starts to sign for it, no matter where we are. 
  4. Be realistic with your expectations. Babies can't do very complex movements. I remember a few times when Mike would say, "That's not drink, it's this."But for Eli, his version often looked different than the textbook version. Just like children learn to speak verbally with imperfect pronunciation, babies will have their own version of the signs. Eli sorta waves his hand to his right for "drink," rather than the true sign of holding his hands like a cup at his mouth. I know what he means, and that's all that really matters. It's silly to expect them to get it perfect.
  5. Involve other regular caretakers. Coinciding with the first point, repetition is imperative. If you can, let other people who care for your child know signs you're teaching, and how to interpret your baby's versions of the signs. Since I'm a SAHM, I was able to basically teach Eli on my own, but when Mike was home, he would sign too and since my mother-in-law watches Eli every once in a while, I taught her the basics (food, drink, milk) so she could understand Eli and communicate with him. 
Signing can be started as early as you like, but I've heard most people start around six months, knowing most babies won't be able to communicate back until eight moths. To find the signs I wanted to teach, I would just Google the sign I wanted, then watch a video of it. I've also heard good things about the Baby Signing Time DVDs, which I actually have, but never really used. I have family though that have used them to great success. 

I remember when we started, Mike thought I was a little crazy how much I was signing to Eli, and even told me a few times that he thought it wouldn't really matter or that it was worth the effort. But today, he's definitely on board and is super grateful I was diligent in teaching Eli the signs early on. As I mentioned above, I think it has helped immensely in our communication with him and to know how to meet his needs. For example, there have been times when he's woken up crying in the middle of the night signing for milk. As soon as I get him a drink, he goes right back to bed. I'm not sure I long it would have taken me to figure out what he needed in the middle of the night without the help of signs. Other times, Eli might just be loosing it, so I try to look him in the eye and say, "Eli, tell momma what you want." And he knows exactly what that means. Nine times ottta ten it's something that he can communicate with a sign and the temper-tantrum is over. 

It's definitely a lot of work for the first month or two, but since I've decided not to teach him any more signs, it doesn't take any work at all and I definitely think it's worth it. Anyone else out there teach your baby sign language? If so, have any other tips to add?


  1. I started baby sign with my son around 6 months and he didn't do any signs until he was 13 months old. I was a bit discouraged at the time since other mothers had told me about how their baby was using sign to communicate well before then. Once he started though it really helped with having more two way communication. He is 22 months old and uses about 40 signs and recognizes about 20 more. Even though he is much more verbal now it helps when I need clarification. I think that please and thank you are two other good signs to teach since they aren't that difficult to sign, but they are harder to say clearly. I used this video sign dictionary when ever I had a word I wanted to know how to sign: Even though he is talking more I like using sign so I will probably continue adding and learning more signs.

  2. That's so cool that your child knows so many signs! It amazing really! And thanks for the link, that's a great resource!