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Teaching Baby to Sign: The Basics

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 7/12/2012

Baby sign language is not just a new fad in the never ending "things babies need" realm. Researchers in child development have found that sign language is easy for the baby to learn and aids in their ability to communicate, which decreases the baby's, as well as the parent's frustration level.

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    Keeping it Simple!

    800px-Baby beim füttern 

    Many people immediately think of words beings spelled out by complicated hand gestures when they hear the words "sign language." However, as far back as the 17-century doctors and researchers realized that children use sign naturally to communicate. In fact, Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn at the University of California are credited with documenting many of the signs used by babies as young as nine months old, today.

    Basic baby sign language uses gross motor skills. (Babies usually do not develop fine motor skills until well after their first birthday.) Movements using their hands are the easiest to teach. Since the purpose of baby sign language is to help the baby communicate their needs, start with words/phrases that are the most used, for instance, eat, more, and hurt.

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    Beginning Signs

    When teaching a baby basic sign language make sure it is fun. Go slowly. Repeat a sign often, saying the word/phrase that it represents until it is understood. Always encourage the child, even if they get it wrong. Build vocabulary slowly as not to overwhelm the baby.

    Begin with something simple such as "eat." Ask your child, "Do you want to eat?" As you say the word eat, bring you hand, fingers pursed together to your mouth. Move your hand in and out, as if you are putting food into your mouth. This is down in fast, short movements. After you have modeled this word, take your child's hand, move it to his/her mouth and say, "Eat."

    Another easy word to teach is, "more." Again, purse your fingers together, this time using both hands. Tap your fingers together, quickly a few times, saying the word, "more." Take your baby's hands and bring them together saying, "More." Very young babies may tap their fists or hands (like patty cake) to indicate more. As they get older, they will be better at signing it the correct way.

    "Hurt" is also a good first sign to teach. This allows the baby to tell you when they don't feel well. Ask your child, "Do you hurt?" As you ask, tap your two index fingers together. If the child says yes, (shaking head up and down) you can then point to various parts of the body to ask where they hurt. It is best to begin using this word when there is an occasion that the baby might be hurt, such as if they fall down or if they bump themselves. This will help them to understand what "hurt" means.

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    Free Graphics and Instruction

    Parents and teachers can access free graphics, download posters and flash cards and get videos of how to do the signs on a great website dedicated solely to basic baby sign language. Baby Sign also gives a brief history as well as research results that can be accessed.

    Photo credit: Wikicommons


    • Baby Sign Language: Basics, Robin, 2011 -
    • Baby Sign Language: History, Robin, 2011 -


    • Babystrology: Baby Sign Language, 2007 -
    • Signing with Your Baby: Signing Baby Dictionary, 2008 -