The power of teaching your baby to sign

The power of teaching your baby to sign


By Sarah Johnson/The Parenting Place


sarah photo

I’ve always thought babies are a lot smarter than most of us give them credit for. Consider for a moment that 90 percent of a child’s brain is formed in the first three years of life, and more than 700 new neural connections are formed every second.

Pretty amazing.

The problem is that adults often don’t recognize all this baby genius because we tend to convey information with words, either spoken or written. Babies and toddlers, though, have a lot more going on in their heads than their limited or non-existent verbal language allows them to express. 

As someone who studied child development prior to becoming a parent, I had an academic awareness of the fact that language acquisition begins long before a child is able to talk. What I was not prepared for when I had a baby, however, were the full paragraphs of information flying out of my year-old child’s fingers and arms. 

I am referring here to the amazing experience of signing with a very young child. We began introducing signs to our daughter when she was about 7 or 8 months old; researchers say even as early as 6 months is a good time to start. At first, nothing happened and it was hard to stay motivated to stick our tongues out and pant every time we saw a dog, or to tap the tips of our fingers together whenever we asked her if she wanted more of something.

Slowly, though, she began to imitate the signs we made, then to initiate communication on her own. And then suddenly, around 10 or 11 months, her signing exploded. All of a sudden she was “talking” about everything. She popped out of bed every single morning tugging on her shirt (our sign for nursing), and forget about focusing on anything else if a plane was anywhere in the sky. Her eyes got huge and her arms stuck out like wings until the far-off dot disappeared from view.

My mother-in-law, herself a child development expert, never tires of telling the story about the time she came to visit when our daughter was a little less than a year old, and she was tasked with doing bedtime so my husband and I could have a night out. As the evening got dark and our daughter got sleepy, their conversation went like this:

Granddaughter: “Where is Mommy?” (pat chest and raise bent arms up to the side with palms up, quizzical look on face)

Grandma: “Mommy and Daddy are out on a date and they will be home after you are asleep.”

Granddaughter:  “What about bedtime?” (palms together and put to the side of her face, then raise bent arms and look perplexed again)

Grandma: “I am going to rock you and sing to you and then you are going to go to sleep.”

Granddaughter: “Oh, no, you aren’t.” (point to Grandma, put palms together and up to face, shake head and wag finger at poor Grandma)

We sometimes got negative (and unsolicited) feedback from people who said we would delay our daughter’s speech because she didn’t need to speak if she was signing. Our experience was that, if anything, signing helped her to speak better.

Much of the cognitive development that goes into signing is aligned with the development of speech. A child has thoughts he or she wants to communicate, and the methods for conveying those thoughts need to be learned and practiced.

Hand-eye coordination develops much earlier than verbal skills. Thus, signing is a fantastic way to help children make the connection between internal thoughts and external communication, and to allow a child to express himself or herself, earlier and better. Researchers have found that children who were taught sign language as babies had more advanced verbal skills at age 2 and higher IQ scores at age 8 than children who did not learn signs.

Much of the frustration (and hence many of the tantrums) that young children experience stems from the inability to effectively communicate a want, need or emotion. I would bet most parents have had the experience of saying or thinking, “I don’t know what you want/need/are feeling” as their child melts down in front of them. I won’t promise an end to all freak outs, but I know that we definitely avoided some because of signing.

We have two sessions of sign language story time coming up this summer at The Parenting Place (register here). They are a wonderful way to play and learn with your baby, and I hope you will join us to jumpstart or reinforce your signing efforts. But you certainly don’t need to wait for a class to get started.

The library is full of books and videos offering commonly used signs that are manageable with baby-level dexterity. We had nothing more than a photocopied list of baby signs that someone at work gave to my husband, and then we just made things up when we didn’t know the “official” sign.

The most important thing is to choose a movement or gesture that makes sense to you and that baby is able to imitate because consistency and frequent repetition are the keys to teaching your child how to communicate through signs. And I mean frequent – you will have the most success if you use the sign every single time you use the word.

Our family really enjoyed signing. And our daughter now has a great vocabulary and is a great communicator. But even better, we got to experience some of the remarkable things that were going through her mind long before we would have if we had waited for her to talk.

Sarah Johnson is a mother and coordinator of The Parenting Place. She is also a member of the Healthy Mesa County parenting action team. Read her every other Thursday on


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