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Baby Sign Language: Communicating Without Words

By Jen Garcin

One of the toughest things about being a parent is knowing that your baby is uncomfortable, but not knowing how to comfort them. Some of my least favorite mom moments are when I’m looking down at my fussing daughter after all of her “needs” are met—I’ve changed her diaper, fed her, and I’m holding her in the position that usually does the trick—yet she still seems uncomfortable. If only she could tell me what is wrong!

While your baby might not have said their first word yet, there is another way that babies can communicate. Little ones as young as six months are able to communicate with their caregivers through baby sign language. Baby sign language is a set of hand gestures that correspond to words you use with your little love every day. Although babies don’t typically start making signs themselves until they are between six and nine months old, a good time to start teaching your little one sign language is when they’re between four and six months old. However, it is never too late to start! Even if your kiddo has already said their first words, sign language can be an effective way to communicate needs that aren’t in your tot’s vocabulary just yet.

Studies show that babies who learn basic sign language get a boost in brain development. Some parents express concern that sign language could delay speech, but research shows that the opposite is true. Babies who use sign language actually speak earlier and have a larger vocabulary than their non-signing peers. Not only is signing good for your baby’s language development, it’s also good for their social learning. Signing is super empowering for babies and their caregivers. Families that use baby sign language as an early form of communication get less frustrated and strengthen their social and emotional bond. Pediatric Occupational Therapist Rachel Coley of CanDo Kiddo writes that using sign language also helps kiddos learn that movements have meaning. Signing isn’t just for parents—CozyKin nannies love being able to communicate through signs with the little ones they care for!

Even though I started using signs fairly early, my otherwise very chatty daughter did not start using the signs herself right away. She was deep into “dadas”, “babas”, and even her own version of “kitty” by the time she sporadically started displaying the sign for milk at around eight months. Be patient, and don’t worry if you or your baby don’t do the signs perfectly. In fact, feel free to adjust them if it makes sense. For instance, the sign for help requires two hands, but if your baby is holding something, the sign may have to be altered to accommodate only having one free hand. The signs don’t have to be perfect to be effective. Consistency, however, is key.

Eloise at eight months signing “milk”. You can see that she is only signing with one hand. That’s totally okay—I can understand her perfectly, so she is communicating her needs effectively to me.

CozyKin nannies recommend starting with seven simple signs for babies that are four or five months old, and then adding two additional signs when baby hits six months.

If your baby is under six months old, try these seven simple signs:

MILK

Sign this to your baby and say “milk” before you nurse or bottle feed them. Eventually they can use this sign to let you know they’re hungry!

Sign Instructions: The sign for milk is quite literally like squeezing an utter. Take both hands, make them into a fist, relax, and repeat.

MORE

Use this sign and ask “more?” when offering more of baby’s milk (or a snack when they are old enough to eat solids).

Sign Instructions: Make both hands into an O shape and repeatedly tap the tips of your fingers together.

ALL DONE

Use this sign and ask or say “all done” when baby finishes eating.

Sign Instruction: This is the sign for “finished”. Hold both palms towards your body and flip them to face baby.

CHANGE

Use this sign when baby needs a diaper change. Sign this after you lay baby down to change them, just before you change their diaper, and say “diaper change”. When baby is older you can ask them if they need a diaper change while signing.

Sign Instruction: Make fists with your pointer finger out in a hook. Cross one hand over the other, than flip your hands.

HELP

Teach this sign when it looks like baby is getting frustrated with a task and you are offering to help. For example, if a toy is out of reach, sign and say “help” and then place the toy in your baby’s hand. As baby gets older, you can ask if they want help as you sign it. Baby might say or sign “no” if they want to do it themselves. That’s okay too!

Sign Instruction: Make a thumbs up with one hand and place it on top of your other palm. Then move both hands together in an upward motion.

SLEEP

Teach this sign and say “sleep” when baby is showing tired cues (rubbing their eyes, pulling their ears, or yawning) and right before naps and bedtime. Eventually baby can sign this themselves before they get cranky or fussy from being overtired.

Sign Instruction: Take one hand and spread your fingers wide with your palm facing the top of your face. Move your hand down and close your fingers to your thumb below your chin. Close your eyes as your hand moves down.

HURT

All babies get boo-boos. Teach this sign when baby falls over when they’re learning to sit up or another baby plays a little too rough. You can say “hurt”, “ouchies” or something that makes sense for you and your kiddo. Just be consistent!

Sign Instructions: Make both hands into a fist with your index fingers extended. Point your fingers toward each other and twist your hands back and forth.

When your baby hits six months, try adding in these two signs:

FOOD

Use this sign when offering solids during meals or snack time. Eventually baby can use this sign to let you know they’re hungry.

Sign Instructions: Take one hand and make an O shape. Tap the tips of your fingers to your mouth. This is also the universal sign for “eating”.

WATER

Babies who are six months and older are able to have up to 2oz of water per day. Use this sign when you are offering baby a cup of water. Ultimately, baby can use this sign to let you know they’re thirsty.

Sign Instructions: Take one hand and make a W or 3 with your pointer, middle, and index fingers. Your pinky and thumb should be touching and tap your pointer finger on your chin.

Baby sign language is a fun, easy, and super effective way to facilitate communication and bonding with your little one. If you want to learn even more signs to communicate with your baby, check out this helpful guide.

Jen Garcin is a proud mom of a human baby and two kittens. She had an exciting and fulfilling career in criminal justice reform before transitioning to her favorite job ever, being a stay-at-home mom to her daughter & boss, Eloise. She is also a certified yoga instructor. Jen is passionate about all issues related to motherhood, social justice, and dabbles in freelance writing and marketing consulting. She is super active in her local community, and hosts a monthly cookbook club.

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