Baby Signing a Practical Way of Communicating

By Jamie Birdsong Nieroda, attachment parenting leader (API of Suffolk County-Long Island, New York, USA)

I was never one of those people, pre-kids, who romanticized parenting. I worried instead about how my baby and I would communicate and how I would deduce from her cries the action required to meet her needs.

My sister had used some basic baby signs with my niece Dakota, teaching her to sign “more” and “milk,” but the significance of this seemingly simple form of communication didn’t hit home until one afternoon when my sister was trying to help Dakota fall asleep by giving her a backrub. When she stopped, Dakota sat up and signed “more.”

I was fascinated by how she had extrapolated a sign previously used only to request more food to ask for more massage. In that moment, I realized the potential that signing had for a deeper level of communication.

We’ve used it twice now, with two different approaches, both times with success, connection, and unimaginable delight. It allowed our sweet ones to communicate their needs and interests while providing us with ever-amazing glimpses into their complex minds. With each sign, it was evident that our recognition and understanding of their communication gave a sense of confidence to our preverbal children as well as showed them we were interested in what they had to say. I’ve come to realize that it is not only helpful in understanding my baby’s basic needs but has opened up a rich and ever-rewarding vehicle of sharing my child’s excitement for the world.

When our firstborn, Aviv, was about six months old, we began showing her a couple baby signs, following the advice in Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. At eight months, Aviv signed “flower” for the first time and began to use it to point out flowers everywhere. A week later, I sat nursing Aviv in my in-law’s home where we had been staying for an extended visit. We had talked often about the vase of silk flowers sitting on our room’s dresser. I sniffed loudly to clear my nose. Aviv stopped nursing immediately and turned to look at the bouquet. She smiled and signed “flower” and then laughed. This was our first adorably brilliant signing miscommunication, opening the door for more communication: “You thought when I cleared my nose I was talking to you about the flowers! My nose is stuffed up and I need to blow it, so I was sniffing.”

At 10 months, Aviv began signing “dog.” The first time she used the sign, we were taking an evening stroll and she “commented” on the incessant barking of a neighborhood dog. She began signing “dog” to communicate about anything related to our pooch, like when she played with Maya’s leash or passed her water bowl. “Milk,” “eat,” “fan,” and “hat” soon followed. We were amazed at how much of the world she understood without our full comprehension minus this under-used communication device. When, compelled by our own fascination, we would note to a stranger that she was signing “water” because she saw a river in a painting, the question inevitably asked was if she was deaf. Most people have never heard of baby signing. One friend commented that our babies seemed so aware, and what we were learning is that they all are in degrees both staggering and easily discovered with American Sign Language (ASL).

Baby Signing with Aviv

Aviv was signing five signs at one year old when my husband’s boss told him how her daughter had been slow to talk and that learning to communicate through sign language had decreased her frustration and limited tantrums. She offered to loan a video series called Signing Time to us if we were interested. I hesitated as I wanted Aviv to be media-free, yet I also recognized the value and impact of sign language not only on her ability to communicate but also on our relationship with her. She was no longer unable to communicate what she saw. For instance, when she was 11 months old, I had my hair wrapped in a towel. Aviv signed “hat,” which gave me the insight needed to explain, “Yes, this towel goes on my head just like a hat does. I put a towel on my head to dry my hair some before I brush it.”

When Aviv was 12 months old, we were driving along in the car and she pointed out the window and signed “tree.” As we talked about the newly leafed trees, she signed “gentle” and “flower,” identifying our past discussions of being gentle with flowers and allowing me to link all of these thoughts together. At 14 months, she signed “potty” emphatically as I pulled the trashcan down to the curb. I looked around, knowing there was a clear reason if I could discover it. Our dog was peeing on the lawn behind me, so we got a laugh together and I told her, “Yes, Maya sure is going potty! We go inside on the toilet, but she waits until she is outside to pee in the grass.” So many conversation-starters and continued language acquisition began through our children’s ability to allow us to enter their world with a reference point.

Based on our early experiences with sign language, we decided to borrow the videos. I had no idea how strongly my daughter’s will would develop just at that point. I had envisioned showing her the videos at my leisure. I hadn’t considered her leading me to the den and pointing at the entertainment center to demand Signing Times. Nonetheless, at 14 months, she used 34 signs regularly and there were many more that she was on the brink of adding to her repertoire. She loved the videos, requesting them often while she was actively learning, but once she knew the signs, she seldom asked for them again and I was able to resume the “media-free” existence I’d desired.

Meanwhile, her extensive signing served as a launching point. We found a site,, where we could look up signs of objects and activities that interested her, like balloons, bubbles, and tractors. We were learning together! Aviv was an early talker with clear speech. Many people asked us if teaching sign would delay verbal language acquisition. Baby Signs suggests that using sign language instead facilitates early speech, and our experience with our daughter certainly bore that out. However, our son’s language acquisition came much slower than his sister’s did, and his ability to communicate through sign became all the more necessary to stave off frustration. Regardless, a baby eventually will acquire language, so even if language were to develop at a slightly slower pace, I believe the benefits I have seen would be well worth it.

Baby Signing with Tahvo

With Tahvo, we began a bit more lackadaisically with our sign language use, and I worried it would not “take off” and that we would miss the powerful communication that comes with its use. While I would recommend Signing Time videos wholeheartedly, we opted to teach Tahvo without the use of media. Because our three-year-old daughter was media-free and because I wanted to create a “yes” environment, teaching ASL without the use of media seemed the most logical option for us the second time around.

Our foray into signing with Tahvo began slowly. We focused on his interests, and if we didn’t know the sign, we looked it up. It compelled us to look up more signs and cater signing to his specific interests. Whether it was because he didn’t see multiple children in a video signing while having the word enunciated repeatedly or perhaps just unique to him, his signing was less polished and required more inquiry on our part until we learned to identify his modifications. He knew less signs at 14 months than Aviv did, but despite our haphazard method of teaching and our lack of reliance on videos, I was surprised at how effective this approach also proved to be. Now at 17 months, his lexicon is less varied but we continue to add signs as we explore the world together and “meet more words we do not know.”

Baby Signing Need Not Be Formal

Baby Signs’ authors urge parents to watch for their children to make up their own signs. Pre-motherhood, I was skeptical of this phenomenon and wondered if my children would do so. In both cases they did, though it took awhile to recognize each time. With Aviv, we noticed her tugging her ear at times and began to notice it seemed to occur around the mention of yogurt. As I told a visiting friend that we were beginning to think Aviv had made up her own sign for yogurt, Aviv tugged her ear and we got a good laugh. She had found a way to communicate about one of her favorite foods, and we had paid attention until we discovered what she was trying to tell us.

Tahvo had a penchant for music so it was no surprise that he made up a sign for music, which consisted of a maneuver that looked a bit like snapping his fingers. He used it in a variety of ways, whether to ask for music or to note its absence. Once while nursing, he signed “music,” climbed down from my lap, pointed to the stereo speakers in an apparent request to turn on the radio, and then casually leaned over to make music on his glockenspiel. He would sign “music” to note his dismay when a song ended, and we could pacify him since we understood his whining meant he thought the music was over and wanted it to continue. I may have overlooked these signs if I hadn’t known to anticipate this possibility.

Some signs became a much broader way of talking about the world. Tahvo used the sign “milk” for Momma and additionally for any woman he saw in either real life or a magazine. They both had their own adaptations of signs as well. At 10 months, Aviv clapped her hands together for “more” rather than tapping her fingertips together. Tahvo pounded his chest rather than his leg to sign “dog” and Aviv at first signed “bird” backwards, the image that you see if someone does the bird sign while facing you. For a brief time, we thought Tahvo was signing “tree” for his dad. We finally realized his palm splayed open and in front of his face was his loose rendition of the sign for father rather than tree. Tahvo’s helicopter sign looked similar to the sign for leaf, and that stumped us for awhile. Sometimes, time elapsed before Tahvo used a sign (or used it again) and we wouldn’t recall the sign right away. It stimulated us more than a Sudoku challenge!

Baby Signing Not Just Fun, Also Practical

For us, sign language also had its practical purposes. The baby sign for diaper is tapping the bottom. My daughter would ask to be changed as soon as she awoke, by signing “diaper.” Both my children often signed “potty” prior to wetting their diaper. Potty training was helped along through the use of ASL. Signs like “gentle,” “thirsty,” “hungry,” “water,” and specific food signs like “cracker” and “apple” were convenient and minimized frustrations more times than I can count.

Jessica Dell of Brooklyn, New York, USA, found that signing eased her 14-month-old son Jule’s transition from the care of a nanny to daycare. Jules expressed anger, anxiety, and sadness over separating from his mother at each drop-off, and sign language gave him a vehicle to discuss with her the events of the day with signs like “cry,” “sad,” “hurt,” “Momma,” “goodbye,” and “play ball.” Each evening, they were able to reconnect while Jessica used sign to communicate with Jules, acknowledge his grief, and discuss the day.

My children also used signs to link objects within categories and make inquiries. Tahvo would sign one of the three animal signs that he first knew, “dog,” “bird,” or “fish,” for many other animals we would see on clothing, in books, or in real life. One day as I sat with my friend Ellen and her children at a café, Tahvo, then 13 months, saw zebras on Ellen’s son Aidon’s hat and signed “dog” and then “bird.” I noted how he often signed one of these animals for any animal we saw. Ellen suggested that signing babies sign something within the same category not because they are misidentifying the animal but as if to say, “It’s not a bird, but it’s similar. What is that thing, mom? Tell me more!” They are able to utilize signing to gather more information, knowing this line of questioning will initiate their parent’s response: “Yes, it’s an animal just like a dog is. It’s a zebra with black and white stripes. It’s shaped a lot like the horse we saw at the farm today, isn’t it? Aidon’s hat has a zebra, and yours has airplanes!” Or trucks or guitars, as the case may be! This then leads to a whole other set of comments and inquiries.

Using sign language had the benefit of enhancing our children’s relationship with each other as well. They created a family dinner game with Aviv ducking down in her chair and Tahvo immediately looking to us and signing “where?” My husband and I would chime in, “Where did she go?” and she would pop back up laughing. When she ran to another room, Tahvo would sign “where?” or “girl” to ask where she had gone. She enjoyed this attention and would run back and forth to observe him requesting her return. Tahvo also signed “music” whenever Aviv began to sing. She loved this early and tangible recognition from him – and for one of her favorite pastimes, no less! And certainly not least, she took pleasure in showing him signs and inquiring further about new signs to teach him.

Baby Signs Not for Everyone, But It Is for Us

Not to say there isn’t a plethora of communication, spoken and unspoken, without using sign language with one’s baby. In our experience, however, sign language certainly broadened our communication, provided insights, created laughter, and gave a second language where before there was none. And not least, it provided for our little ones a deep satisfaction and sense of competence in their world as well as the knowledge that they could affect positive change by communicating their needs to Mom, Dad, and other close caregivers.

8 thoughts on “Baby Signing a Practical Way of Communicating”

  1. Wow…what a wonderful article. You beautifully illustrate how using sign language with babies is so much more than being able to sign a few words to meet basic needs! I love how you talk about how it really helps deepen the parent/child bond by allowing you to really SEE into your child’s preferences and personality. I had similar experiences with my daughter showing me through signs what she was observing, including one with a flower!

    We were outside taking a walk and she kept signing flower. I was pushing her in the stroller and she kept turning around and looking at me, signing FLOWER. Looking around I didn’t any flowers so I kept responding something to the effect of yes, honey, you like flowers. She finally got very insistent in her signing…she turned around, looked at me, very emphatically signed flower and then even more emphatically pointed to the ground. When I looked at where she was pointing I realized that there were some flowering weeds growing along the sides of the street that I completely overlooked. Weeds to me, but flowers to her and she wanted me to stop so that she could get out of the stroller and explore them. It was so amazing! I couldn’t help but laugh as I got her out of the seat and watched as she delighted in playing with the “flowers!” It filled my heart with gratitude as I realized that if she had not been able to communicate with me through sign, I would have missed this truly memorable moment with her.

  2. I started late with my son (13 months), but being able to communicate with Seth beyond the cavemanesque “grunt n point” stages has been so rewarding. There are fewer tantrums, and we can talk about the things he’s actually interested in! At 19 months, it’s a coin toss now as to whether he picks up a word or a sign when he adds to his growing vocabulary. Sometimes both!

    One of the more frustrating things pre-signing was his worse teething days. Now, with the addition of the “hurt” sign and pointing at his mouth, I know his teeth bother him, and can help alleviate his distress. Before, he would fuss until he cried, and grow more frustrated as he was offered drink, breast, food, toys, and the sling, until finally being offered the homeopathics. The first time we strung it all together with only a little groaning and guessing, he laughed in relief. So did I!

    Definitely planning on using the method with my second son, due literally any day now. I don’t think I couldn’t!

  3. At about 15 months, our signing granddaughter put together a three word signed sentence…”Hungry, food, please.”

  4. Thank you for sharing this. We have had a similarly wonderful experience with signing and it continues to amaze me every day with our second child and also to facilitate lovely conversations. It was so helpful to read your interpretations also, it’s given me a few new ideas! Hooray for signing!!

  5. It brings me such joy to read your lovely responses to my article! They really brought tears to my eyes. It is such a powerful experience, and I love the feedback from other avid signers! I would love to hear any more stories!

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