Baby sign language is incredibly popular in the UK. It can transform the connection between you and your baby and can be a valuable tool to bridge the communication gap during those crucial early years.
We all know the universal gestures such as waving at someone to say hello. Signing adds to and enhances communication for pre-verbal babies and toddlers. By using sign language with your baby, you can reduce frustration and promote a stronger bond between you and your child.
Table of Contents
- What is baby sign Language?
- Why Should You Use Sign Language With Your Baby?
- What Age Should You Start Teaching Baby Sign Language?
- Is Baby Sign the Same as Makaton?
- Does Using Sign Language Delay Speech?
- What are the best Signs to Teach a Baby?
- How Do I Teach My Baby to Sign in the UK?
- Baby Signing Classes
- Baby Sign Apps and websites:
- Baby Sign Books
- Baby Sign YouTube Clips
- A World of Connection Awaits
What is baby sign Language?
The term baby sign language is slightly misleading. The signs you teach your baby are simplified gestures and hand motions that are used in British Sign Language. They are simplified because babies do not have the manual dexterity to do the correct signs.
Signing will help your baby develop their language and cognitive skills by using a visual language. This is really useful for babies as it allows them to express their needs and emotions before they can efficiently communicate using speech.
Why Should You Use Sign Language With Your Baby?
Incorporating sign language into your parenting routine offers numerous advantages for both you and your baby. One of the main reasons parents choose to use sign language is to establish a more effective means of communication with their pre-verbal infants. By enabling your baby to express their needs, emotions, and thoughts through gestures, you can better understand and respond to your child, ultimately reducing frustration and tantrums.
Dr Garcia developed the idea of Baby Sign Language several years ago. Key points to note from Dr Joseph Garcia’s work include:
Every parent and baby or toddler goes through the “I don’t know what you want” stage which can be frustrating. Signing does not eliminate this but it helps to make communication easier.
Using sign language also fosters a deeper connection between you and your child, as it promotes active engagement and interaction. This bonding experience can have a significant impact on your child’s social and emotional development, instilling a sense of security and trust in their relationship with you, their caregiver.
One of the key studies that supports using sign language with babies can lead to improved cognitive development and enhanced linguistic abilities is the research conducted by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn. Their work in the U.S has been published in several papers and books, one of the most notable being “Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk.”
Their research found that babies who were exposed to sign language had a larger vocabulary, scored higher on IQ tests at 8 years old, and demonstrated better language skills than their non-signing peers. Other researchers have also investigated the benefits of using sign language with babies and have observed similar positive effects on cognitive and linguistic development.
Babies who learn to sign often exhibit enhanced language skills, a larger vocabulary, and higher IQ scores in later childhood. This early exposure to communication through gestures can lay the groundwork for more advanced language acquisition and cognitive abilities.
Using sign language with your baby can not only improve communication and strengthen your bond but also provide a solid foundation for their intellectual, social, and emotional growth.
What Age Should You Start Teaching Baby Sign Language?
Most information online says the ideal age to introduce sign language to your baby is around 6 to 8 months old. However, native deaf families (who use BSL as their first language) introduce signs to babies as young as 6 – 8 weeks old. Babies at this age, recognise faces and can track movements so introducing a sign such as ‘milk’ will help develop communication at the earliest opportunity. If you start early, more signs can be introduced over the following months.
From 3 – 6 months, babies are more attentive, can better focus on your hand movements, and begin to develop the motor skills necessary to mimic different gestures. They also start to recognise what sounds mean and signing can reinforce that through visual cues.
When you start teaching your baby sign language, be patient and adapt your approach to their pace of development. Language development happens in stages and every baby is unique, so their readiness to learn sign language may vary.
Consistency is key; try incorporating signs into your daily routines, such as during mealtime, playtime, or nappy changes. As your baby grows and their cognitive abilities advance, you can gradually introduce more complex signs and expand their signing vocabulary.
It’s never too late to start teaching sign language, even if your child has already begun speaking. In fact, older infants and toddlers can still benefit from learning signs, as it can support their language development, enhance their communication skills, and boost their confidence in expressing themselves.
Above all, it’s essential to adapt your approach based on your child’s individual needs and development, ensuring a positive and effective learning experience.
Is Baby Sign the Same as Makaton?
While baby sign language and Makaton share some similarities, they are not the same system. Both aim to facilitate communication through the use of gestures and signs; however, there are distinct differences between the two.
Baby sign language is primarily designed for pre-verbal infants and their caregivers, using simplified gestures and hand movements adapted from traditional sign languages, such as British Sign Language (BSL) or American Sign Language (ASL), or custom signs created by parents. The primary purpose of baby sign language is to enable effective communication between parents and their babies before they develop speech.
Makaton is a communication system developed in the UK that combines signs, symbols, and speech to support people with learning difficulties or communication disorders. Makaton uses a set vocabulary of signs and symbols, derived from BSL, and is designed to be used alongside spoken language. This system is widely used in special education settings, as well as with individuals who have speech and language difficulties.
Mr Tumble on CBeebies uses Makaton, not sign language. They are similar to baby sign language
While both baby sign language and Makaton use gestures and signs to facilitate communication, they serve different purposes and populations. Baby sign language focuses on pre-verbal infants and their parents, while Makaton is designed for individuals with learning difficulties or communication disorders, using a more structured approach with a specific set of signs and symbols.
Does Using Sign Language Delay Speech?
A common concern among parents, particularly those with a baby that has hearing loss or deafness, is whether using sign language with their babies might delay speech development. However, research and evidence suggest that this is not the case. In fact, using sign language can actually support and enhance speech development in young children.
Where deaf children are concerned, some researchers would say that language should be introduced as early as possible, to avoid ‘language deprivation‘. Accessing language is a crucial part of cognitive and emotional development.
Studies conducted by researchers such as Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn have shown that babies who were taught sign language exhibited more advanced language skills and larger vocabularies once they began to speak, compared to their non-signing peers. The process of teaching and learning signs alongside spoken words helps babies develop a stronger understanding of language and communication concepts.
The reason behind this is that using sign language does not replace speech; instead, it complements and reinforces it. Parents are encouraged to use signs alongside spoken words, allowing their babies to associate gestures with their corresponding meanings. As babies develop their motor skills and can produce the hand signs, they are also working on their speech abilities, and eventually, the spoken words will replace the need for signs.
Using sign language with your baby does not delay speech development; on the contrary, it can support and enhance their language skills by providing an additional means of communication and understanding during their pre-verbal stage.
What are the best Signs to Teach a Baby?
When starting to teach your baby sign language, it’s best to focus on practical and essential signs that relate to their daily needs and experiences. Here are some of the most useful signs to begin with:
- Milk: This sign is used to indicate breastfeeding or bottle-feeding and is especially helpful for babies to communicate their hunger.
- More: This versatile sign can be used in various contexts, such as asking for more food, playtime, or cuddles.
- Eat: Teach your baby the sign for ‘eat’ to help them express when they’re hungry or ready for a meal.
- Sleep: The sign for ‘sleep’ can help your baby communicate when they’re tired and ready for a nap or bedtime.
- All done: This sign is useful for babies to indicate when they’ve finished eating or playing, or when they want to be changed or taken out of their high chair.
- Bath: This sign is useful for your baby to indicate when they want to take a bath or are ready to get out of the tub.
Play: The sign for ‘play’ helps your baby express their desire for playtime or to engage with a specific toy.
Other essentials signs include signs for pain or discomfort, family, friends, pets, health and safety signs (e.g. no touch – hot!). You could add other signs such as ‘where’ to use at playtimes (e.g. for playing hide and seek with a toy). Check out our list below to find links to video clips showing the signs.
By focusing on these essential signs, you’ll be equipping your baby with the tools they need to communicate their basic needs and desires, making day-to-day interactions smoother and more enjoyable for both of you.
How Do I Teach My Baby to Sign in the UK?
You can use baby signs anywhere there is an opportunity to communicate. It is essential that teaching your baby sign language is a fun and rewarding experience for both you and your child. To ensure success, consider the following tips and strategies:
Top tips to start baby signing
- Speak slowly and clearly but in a natural way
- Keep it simple, using just one sign per sentence
- Be consistent in the signs you use but happily accept any signing attempts from the young child
- Be patient and relaxed about baby signing, using lots of praise
- Follow your baby’s lead and from nine months onwards, observe what interests your child and introduce signs that will mirror this
Strategies for baby signing
- Start early: You can introduce signing when your baby is around 3 – 6 months old. This is when they begin to develop the motor skills and attentiveness needed to learn and imitate gestures.
- Eye contact: when your baby is able to use steady eye contact, you can use this as an opportunity to sign
- Consistency and repetition: Be consistent in using signs and repeat them frequently. This helps your baby associate the gesture with its meaning and reinforces their learning.
- Use spoken language: Always pair signs with spoken words. This helps your baby understand the connection between the sign and the word, supporting their speech development.
- Incorporate signs into daily routines: Integrate signing into your everyday activities, such as mealtime, playtime, bath time, and bedtime. This contextual use of signs helps your baby better understand their meaning and application.
- Keep it simple: Start with a few basic signs that are most relevant to your baby’s needs and experiences. Gradually introduce new signs as they become more confident and proficient.
- Make it interactive and fun: Use songs, stories, and games to make signing an enjoyable and engaging experience for your baby. This will encourage their interest and motivation to learn.
- Visual aids: Use picture books, flashcards, or videos that feature signs to provide additional visual reinforcement and help your baby remember the gestures.
- Be patient and positive: Every child learns at their own pace, so be patient and provide plenty of encouragement and praise as they progress.
- Involve family members: Encourage other caregivers, siblings, and family members to learn and use the signs as well. This consistent use of sign language across different settings will reinforce your baby’s learning.
Remember to keep signs simple. Use them at the relevant time. For example, use the food sign for all mealtimes or use the ‘milk’ sign for both water and milk. If you offer both at the same time, your child can choose which one they want.
- Baby sign is not BSL: if you meet a deaf person who uses BSL, avoid explaining that you know a few “signs”. It could come across as disrespectful and patronising.
- Don’t get frustrated or show frustration. If you don’t enjoy it, stop doing it! If you feel baby sign isn’t working then don’t carry on regardless. Be guided by your baby and your own feelings when using baby sign, if it doesn’t feel right, then stop using it. There are plenty of other ways to bond with your baby.
- Don’t use your child as a circus animal. As your child grows, they may not appreciate being asked to show their signing to others. Baby sign language is used to help you communicate with your baby at the pre-verbal stage of their life.
By following these tips and incorporating sign language into your parenting routine, you’ll be well on your way to helping your baby develop effective communication skills and fostering a strong bond between the two of you.
Baby Signing Classes
Baby signing classes are a great way to learn signs but also to connect with other parents and make friends. Classes can can support your journey in teaching your baby. here is our recommended list:
Baby Sign Apps and websites:
Cbeebies have a range of resources for learning baby sign.
Where is the bird? is a book and app that teaches signs through a story
Twinkl is a website with a vast number of resources (paper-based and videos) to help you teach baby signs.
Baby Sign Books
Books by Cath Smith are a fantastic resource for learning sign language, including this BSL Baby Sign Link* book. This book has engaging visual images and includes the added benefit of videos that show you each sign :
Other books include Baa Baa Black Sheep* which is a sign and singalong book.
Baby Sign YouTube Clips
Commanding hands is a YouTube channel that teaches a wide range of signs. Baby signs include milk, food and bed.
Twinkl have YouTube shorts channel that teaches baby signs including animal signs and mealtime signs.
Caution: Not all baby signing videos are equal
There are inaccurate ‘baby sign’ videos on YouTube. Some signs will be too advanced for babies so you may find your baby reject some signs that might too complex to do. That is why we recommend the resources listed above as a starting point. We will share more resources, such as links to video clips, as we find them.
A World of Connection Awaits
Teaching your baby sign language, presents a unique opportunity for you and your child to connect and communicate on a deeper level, even before speech develops. By teaching your baby sign language, you can alleviate frustration, strengthen your bond, and support their cognitive, linguistic, and emotional growth. The benefits of this early communication tool extend far beyond its immediate practical uses, laying a strong foundation for your child’s future development.
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