Baby Sign Language: 10 Signs To Communicate With Your Baby + Benefits
10 mins read
Linguistic Development for New Born, Baby
Baby sign language can be a great way to understand your baby and communicate with her. Your baby is not going to say her first word for a while... but that doesn't mean you cannot 'talk' to each other! In fact, teaching your baby sign language can boost her linguistic development! Learn about baby sign language basics and benefits in this article.
Anyone who has ever played the game of dumb charades knows just how handicapped one can feel, without the power to speak and express oneself! However, not talking does not mean ‘not communicating’. For almost the entire first year of our life, we go without saying one single comprehensible word. Yet somehow, we manage to get our mommies and daddies to do what we want them to do for us – from feeding, to diapering, to putting us to bed.
But what if we, as parents, could use these normal, natural gestures that babies make to communicate with them?
What is Baby Sign Language
Baby sign language is the language of gestures (mostly hand and face gestures) that allows a mother (or any adult) to understand a baby’s needs easily, and communicate with her before she learns to talk.
One of the biggest sources of a new mother's anxiety is the inability to understand what the baby is trying to say! If you observe your baby carefully, however, you will notice a pattern in her movements and gestures, and soon you will develop an understanding of her needs – when she sucks her thumb, it means she wants food; when she rubs her eyes, it means she is sleepy.
So why not use this to actually improve your communication with your baby?
Baby Sign Language Basics
One sureshot sign of readiness for learning baby sign language that your baby will show, is coo-ing in response to you talking to her. Sometime around 3 months of age, your baby will begin to respond to your voice. Around 7 months of age, she will begin to understand that her responses affect you too! So a good time to start your baby on sign language is at roughly 4 months of age.
Here are 10 easy and common baby sign language gestures you can start with. It is important to also mouth the corresponding word when you teach your baby sign language, saying it slowly and repeating it several times. If this step is missed, your baby may not be able to reap all benefits of baby sign language!
Hold your hand out, palm facing your chest. Alternately open and close your fist. This gesture when done right, looks like you are squeezing a soft ball.
Hold your hand in front of you, palm facing upward. Join the tips of your fingers together. Bring this gesture to your mouth. When done right, this gesture looks like you are putting food into your mouth.
Hold your hand in front of your face, palm facing inwards. Join the tips of your fingers, while simultaneously drawing your hand closer to your chin. Close your eyes as you do this gesture.
Close both your fists and place them on your chest. Gently rub your chest, alternately moving your fists up and down.
Join your hands at the wrist, fists closed. Gently twist your fists, keeping the wrists in contact. When done correctly, your fists will alternately be on top of each other.
Hold your hands in front of you, palms facing inwards. Now turn your hands, so that your palms are facing your baby. This gesture is similar to when a magician tries to show the audience his hands are ‘empty’.
Hold your left hand out, palms facing up. With the other hand, make a ‘thumbs-up’ sign. Now gently lift this with your left open palm. Alternatively, babies can also be taught to gently tap their chest with the tips of their fingers when they want ‘help’ (as shown in the picture).
Start with your palms joined in ‘namaste’. Now open your palms, such that they are facing you. This gesture mimics the actual act of opening a book.
Place your palm on your chest. Gently move the palm in a circular motion.
Hold one hand out, such that your thumb is stretched out, and the four fingers are held togehter. Now place the four fingers of your other hand at the base of the thumb (as shown in the picture). Gently move the finger away and toward the thumb.
WATCH: Babies Signing Different Words
Key Takeaway: As you can see in the video, baby sign language can greatly facilitate communication between babies and adults, as well as between two or more babies. It is a great tool you can use to develop your baby's communication skills as well as kill the frustration of not knowing what your baby wants!
After reading all this, one may wonder – where do babies learn to make all these gestures from in the first place?
Part of it is ‘evolution’... for many generations, ‘babies’ have been doing things, and in return of their gestures, their ‘parents’ have been responding – with water, food, sometimes a hug or kiss!
However, there will be certain gestures which may be unique to your baby. For example, maybe your baby once winked at you, making you plant a kiss on her cheek. The baby begins to notice this pattern, and then acquires it as a ‘learned behaviour’. So, the next time she wants mommy to kiss her, she is going to wink!
Benefits of Sign Language
That baby sign language is a cool way to get your baby to ‘talk’ to you is clear. However, there are several other benefits of teaching your baby sign language! Here they are.
When you gesture something to your baby and say the corresponding word or phrase, you are engaging her on multiple levels at once. She is watching your lips move, observing your face, and looking at your hands, learning your gestures. There is a lot of eye-contact happening too. You may be close to her, allowing her to breathe in your natural body odour deeply. All of this helps your baby to know her mommy better, and vice-versa. Teaching your baby sign language, and using this sign language communication to talk to her, is thus a great bonding exercise for both of you.
When you teach your baby sign language, you are teaching her more than just to tell you what she wants – you are equipping her with a method of expressing herself. It won’t be long before she begins to use her gestures to communicate other things to you.
A lot of parents are concerned, however, that baby sign language will delay speech development in their baby. If you too are concerned about it, here is some good news from Dr. Lynn Mowbray Wegner, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics: Baby sign language does NOT delay verbal language in babies. Most parents feel this way because they ‘expect’ their baby to hit certain milestones at certain ages. However, there is great variance when it comes to babies achieving milestones, so relax!
Helps Understand Baby Better
Most mothers can vouch for having felt clueless at least once in their journey of motherhood. When your baby tries and tries to tell you something and then starts crying because she can’t get you to do something – that’s every mother’s worst nightmare! How nice it would be if we understood exactly what babies want! Baby sign language can help you understand your baby better. It will not only make your baby but also you more observant. You will soon be able to pick up on the little things your baby does and will know exactly what she needs.
Leaves Impact on Baby's Vocabulary
Several studies have been conducted to understand the effects of ‘gesturing’ on the development of verbal skills and vocabulary of the child during the later years of her life. Here are some of the findings of these studies:
Children are more likely to learn new words if they are presented to them with a corresponding gesture; words learnt in this way are retained over longer periods in their minds too.
Children whose parents use a lot of gestures while communicating with them are more likely to develop better vocabularies later in school.
Children develop language skills faster than their peers if their parents use more than just verbal cues while talking to them (for example, showing them things, gesturing while talking to them, etc.)
Babies who themselves use a lot of hand gestures while interacting with adults are more likely to start speaking at an earlier age. Such babies are also more likely to utter complete sentences earlier than their peers. In fact, they may even skip saying single words, and may directly jump to short sentences.
Babies that gesture a lot are also more likely to develop larger vocabularies once they start attending school. Their pre-school vocabularies will also be more elaborate than their peers’.
All these findings reinstate that gesturing is good for developing language and vocabulary, and the earliest step you can take towards encouraging gesturing in your baby is to teach her baby sign language.
Vocabulary Development in Autistic Children
Not only is baby sign language important for vocabulary building in typical/normal children, the benefits of signing and use of gestures while talking to babies is also seen in children suffering from autistic spectrum disorders. It has been noted that:
Diectic gestures (‘pointing’ gestures) help not only typical but also autistic children in developing better vocabularies.
Much like typical babies, autistic babies whose parents translate their gestures into words are able to pick up and learn new words faster.
So baby sign language can actually help you to build a strong foundation for the development of speech as well as communication even if your child is suffering from an autism spectrum disorder.
Development of Mathematical Skills in Later Life
One may wonder if gesturing and baby sign language is only important in the early ‘baby’ years of a child’s life. However, the benefits of gesturing can be seen in later life too. In a study conducted by Susan Wagner Cook and Susan Goldin-Meadow at the University of Chicago, two groups of children were assisted in solving a maths problem: one group was given only verbal cues and explanation, while the other was offered guidance that involved verbal as well as non-verbal cues (particularly, the use of hand-gestures). It was observed that while both groups were able to solve the problem, the group that was given assistance including gestures was able to retain the learning better, and apply the same logic to future problems presented a few weeks later.