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Baby Sign Language

Imagine if your 9-month-old could tell you that he needs his diaper changed, wants juice instead of milk, and that he is tired. By teaching your baby sign language, it's possible to communicate months earlier than normal, helping to reduce frustration and develop a deeper bond with your baby.

Teaching your baby sign language is simply an extension of his or her natural desire to communicate. Most babies naturally learn common signs and gestures such as waving bye-bye, holding up their arms when they want to be picked up, and opening their mouths wide when they want more food. Infants are able to understand language at a very young age; however, most babies don't begin talking until they are between 12 and 24 months old, and their vocabulary and ability to communicate remain extremely limited for months. This is because infants develop the fine muscles in their hands before they develop the facial and tongue coordination required for speech.

Most babies are ready to learn sign language and are able to sign back at around 7 months of age; but each baby is different and some aren't ready until 9 or 10 months. You can start signing to your baby as early as you wish, but don't be discouraged if your baby doesn't respond. Many parents who start too early become bored or frustrated when their baby doesn't sign back and give up. You'll know your baby is ready for signing if he or she can wave bye-bye, hold a rattle, and if she drops something and then looks to see where it went. Once you do start signing, it may take weeks or even months before your baby catches on and begins signing back to you.

Some people worry that teaching a baby sign language will delay his or her speech. However, studies have shown these concerns to be unfounded and infants who learn sign language may actually begin speaking earlier. Infants in these studies started using expressive language at an earlier age, played more with words and ideas, and paired them up before they have even developed the oral motor skills required for speech. At 36 months, the signing babies in the study were speaking, on average, the equivalent of non-signing 47-month-olds; and by age 8, children who had signed as infants had stronger reading skills than those who did not. In addition, studies performed at the University of California found a connection between infant signing and higher IQ scores. They discovered a 12-point difference between a group of second-graders who had signed as babies and those who had not.

There are two schools of thought regarding baby sign language: one advocates using American or British Sign Language (ASL or BSL, respectively) and the other creates its own signs or modifies ASL signs to make them easier for a baby's hands. There are benefits to both methods. Teaching your baby ASL or BSL will make it easier for him to continue signing as a second language and communicate with the hearing impaired. On the other hand, your own signs may be easier for you to remember, and easier for your baby to sign. Regardless of the method you use (and many parents use a combination of both) the most important thing is that you are communicating with your child.

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