Get More Out of Life With Baby Signs

Written by Emily Bartnikowski on December 26th, 2011

Language, Natural Learning

Get More Out of Life with Baby Signs


My sister is hard of hearing. She has an auditory processing disorder that can’t be tested for until one is old enough to reliably respond to specific tests. My sister, who passed her own early hearing tests, spent most of her childhood being scolded to “just listen” and “pay attention.” It wasn’t until she was an adult, demonstrating the (much improved) hearing test for her own students that her disorder was discovered. Now, she has hearing aids and life is beautiful…but it’s  possible that our son has the same disorder.

In order to avoid the same frustration she suffered, we use sign language in addition to our normal speech in our house.  Baz is eighteen months old, and at last count has 4 spoken words and roughly 20 signs. They’re not all perfect – he signs “mom” by sticking his pointer finger up his nose, and audibly smacks himself in the face when signing “thank you” – but they have proven worth the effort in our daily life.

You may be thinking, “Only 4 spoken words? Signing is giving him a speech delay!” Remeber that communication is what is important. Right now, my son communicates with his hands, and when the time comes, his speech will follow.1

"Mom"...or "water"

I picked up some baby sign books and videos and learned what I thought would be the most helpful in the beginning: milk, mom, dad, more, hungry, sleepy, diaper. I started in the hospital. In the early days, I would prop him on the couch (facing me) and I would face the tv and sing the songs while I signed along with the videos. We got his first intentional sign at about 7 months.

A few months later I added a few more. We still sing songs and watch videos – and will ultimately all be fluent. Some signs he uses regularly and without prompting – “help” – and some need reminding – “thank you.” If he wants something, he signs “please” with a fervor that is amusing and heartbreaking, but he’s already learning that simply saying “please” doesn’t always get him what he wants (but sometimes it does).

From time to time I am asked for a list of the best signs to teach. I would like to go on record and say that my opinion is “all of them.” It’s a rich language full of nuance and emotion. You cannot sugar-coat and you cannot double-speak with sign language. For a society that already “talks” with our hands – why not learn how to actually say something?


Sign language also helps families who are trying to raise bilingual children – signs can be used to reinforce that “leche,” “lait,” and “milk” are the same thing simply by adding a simple squeezing motion when you say it.2   As our children become adults, adding “ASL” to “languages spoken” on their resume makes them instantly more marketable – whether they are nurses, lawyers, speech writers, interpreters, or teachers – to name a few.

If, however, you’re simply trying to curb the frustration of the period before speech emerges, you should look at your own lifestyle and choose words that will allow your day to go more smoothly. I have noticed, with our son who wants nothing more than to Do It All Himself, that “help” is the most-used sign in our life. Any time he’s stuck, he only has to catch my eye and sign “help” and I’m there for him. No screaming required.3


Some further reading:

  • Rachel Coleman’s Blog – Rachel’s first daughter was born deaf, and her second daughter has spina bifida and cerebral palsy. She and her family created the Signing Time program (linked below.)


  • ASL Pro – an online dictionary (with videos)
  • Signing Time – a full library of books, dvd, and teaching aids
  • – free self-guided online study at the “American Sign Language University.”

"All Done"

About The Author: Emily Bartnikowski

Emily B emmieb My NPN Posts

Emily is a wife, mother, photographer, and aspiring novelist. She blogs about parenting and life at Embrita Blogging.

7 Responses to Get More Out of Life With Baby Signs

  1. Kai

    What a lovely post to read. I am a mother of 2 boys with severe speech and language disorders, and a ‘neuro typical’ 2 year old girl (my boys are 6,5 years and almost 5) I’ve been a signer all my life, i picked up loads as it was something that massively interested me as a child (one of my favorite films was/is ‘children of a lesser god’ purely because of the signs). As i’ve grown and had my own children my husband wasn’t interested it signing, so i never started it with my oldest, as he grew and we became aware of a significant problem i started to use simpler signs to him, along with the special needs playschool he attended, so DS2 picked it up early (he was 2 days old when DS1 started playschool) They both have grown in signing and in speech, and they both now attend a MLD (moderate learning disability) school local to us in Sussex UK, ALL pupils have ALL classes signed, they also use PECS (picture exchange communication, look it up, highly useful tool as well)they use speech, something i have learnt along this journey is ‘all communication is worth any bit of effort’ My boys struggle with the spoken word, both understanding it and processing it, and speaking it as well, signs and PECS re-enforce this, and help them.
    My DD has NO problems with her communication, but she signs as a matter of course with her brothers, and like you, her please is the cutest thing!
    Something i KNOW within my heart is my children will have an army of communication skills when they are older, as well as deep deep empathy and compassion with others who need a bit of help to live in todays world.

  2. Melissa  

    What a brilliant case for using sign language in the early years, and beyond! Thank you, Emily.

    I found ASL to be an excellent classroom management tool when I was teaching pre-parenting – being able to sign “push in your chair” from across the room, or communicate silently with a child who needed to excuse him or herself to the bathroom made for a much more calm and relaxed day at school.

    I knew I would use ASL with my children when I had them, and I am so glad I did. It has been such an amazing tool for my toddler!

  3. Gaby@Tmuffin  

    That is such a good point: That if you teach a child how to sign “help,” there is a lot less screaming involved. My 11-month old currently signs “more” when he wants more food. It is so helpful, because I know when he’s done!

  4. Lauren  

    Thanks for your enthusiasm on this topic. I really enjoyed this article!

    I love signing and am so excited to start again with baby Alrik. I wish I’d kept it up more as Mikko learned to talk. Mikko still loves the signs he does know, though, as well as the Signing Time DVDs, so I hope he’ll be a big help with signing to the baby. (He is so far!)

    Mikko took a long time to learn to sign back (11 months) and then a relatively long time (for a neurotypical kid) to start talking (18 months), but that’s just how some kids are. I was so glad to have signing bridge those months, because it was astonishing to hear what was going through his head. As you say, it’s all about communication, and he was so pleased to be able to communicate with us, as were we. (P.S. Now that he talks, he never stops, lol.)

  5. Christine @ African Babies Don't Cry  

    Lovely post, thanks for the reminder and inspiration to start baby sign language up again. We started when Jess was about 8 months old very enthusiastically but unfortunately life got the better of us and it dwindled away… now that he is 13 months old I hope we haven’t left it too late 🙁

  6. April G  

    I am so glad I saw this post. I have 14 month old twins who only have a few words each, which is so very different from my oldest, who was stringing together simple, 2 word sentences by the time he was 16 months old. He was an early (9 months!) talker and just never stopped. I noticed the other day that my daughter has been making up her own signs for things, like when she wants to nurse. I quickly taught her to sign for when she’s hungry, and when she wants more or is all done. Now I need to get some books or videos and work on teaching her and her twin brother both how to tell me what they want non-verbally!

  7. Janine  

    I want to hit things when people wrongly declare that signing will hurt my son’s speech. So basically I should make him so frustrated that he is motivated to speak? Somehow I don’t believe it works that way, not to mention there is no research to support it. From what I’ve read, the opposite is true. I would credit signing for my son’s happy disposition and lack of frustrations.