How Babies Sign

how babies sign

The way in which your baby learns to sign is very similar to the way in which she will learn to speak. Your baby will first understand a sign before she uses the sign. This distinction is referred to as receptive versus expressive language (or passive versus active vocabulary.) Older babies will move more rapidly from receptive (passively understanding) language to expressive (actively using) language.

Signs that have similar hand movements will start out looking very similar. For example, the signs for the words more and shoes will look very much the same in the beginning especially if your baby is very young. This is similar to a baby saying “ba” to refer to a bottle, ball and balloon. As your baby matures and gains more control over her hands you will then begin to see a marked difference between previously similar signs.

Just as babies begin speaking at different ages, so too will babies begin signing at different ages with some starting as early as six months. The more control your baby has over her hands and the more interest she has in communicating with you, the more likely she is to begin signing back to you.

There are two milestones in baby education of sign language that most babies will pass through in learning. The first milestone is the first time that your baby signs to you. This moment will be as thrilling to you as your baby’s first spoken word. Once your baby learns a given sign, she will notice the object that represents the sign everywhere. Your baby may also use this first sign to refer to many different objects and actions. This is similar to a baby saying “da” to refer to everything in her world because she finally has a way to communicate.

The second milestone or education is often referred to as a signing explosion or signing cluster. This usually occurs after your baby has learned her first five to ten signs. At this milestone your baby has assimilated one of the most powerful symbolic actions that distinguishes our species from all others on our planet – the link between abstract symbol (the sign) and the experience it represents. Once this monumental achievement is in place, she is likely to learn additional signs very rapidly. The ability your baby to learn additional signs will most likely only be limited by your ability to provide her with the signs.

Signs that cross arms

Your baby may have difficulty crossing her hands or arms when she is young. For example, the ASL sign for the word bear involves the crossing of your arms. Your baby may approximate the motion of this sign without crossing her arms. Remember to continue to teach the correct motions for this sign. Your baby may think that she is in fact making the same sign as you are and may become confused if you change the sign.

Preference for index finger

Your baby may use her index finger for signs that formally involve the use of her thumb. For example, the ASL sign for cow involves the thumb touching the temple of your head to represent the place where the cow’s horn connects to the cow’s head. Your baby may use her index finger in place of her thumb. This is also very common for signs such as mommy and daddy.

Initial movements

Depending upon how young your baby is when she begins to sign, she may make most of her signs with all five fingers extended or clenched in a fist. Younger babies may not have the motor skills to select only a few fingers for a given sign. Her initial overall movements will reflect her motor development. Younger babies are likely to move their hands and arms in a jerky motion as opposed to a smooth and controlled motion. Young babies may also slam their hands together instead of tapping lightly for signs such as shoes and more. Your baby’s signs will become more refined as her motor skills mature.

Signing in reverse

Your baby may make some signs in reverse. Remember that your baby will be seeing a sign backwards if you sign on your body and in front of your baby. It is yet another developmental milestone for your baby to recognize that the sign needs to be reversed in order to make the same movement as you are making from her perspective.

First signs look similar

Your baby’s first signs may look very similar. This is more likely if your baby is younger. Although the movement of the hand may be similar, the location where the sign is made will give you a good clue as to the sign that your baby is trying to make. For example, the signs for milk, bye-bye and duck all have very similar hand movements but the location of the hand movement will allow you to determine the sign that your baby is making. Your baby may sign milk to the side of her body, bye-bye in front of her body, and duck close to her face.

Also, look for the objects around your baby for a clue to what she might be signing.

It is a natural and very important developmental step, in learning language and more generally symbolic manipulation, for your baby to begin placing objects into categories and testing the objects that are included or excluded from those categories. This developmental milestone begins at a very young age for babies who have been taught to sign since they do not need to wait until they can speak to begin creating these categories. As your baby begins creating, testing and recreating categories you may find that she may use one sign for many different objects or she may use one sign for only one object within a larger category. For example, your baby may use the sign for “cat” to refer to all animals with four legs or she may use the sign for “car” to refer to only one toy car.

Remember to reward her attempts, recognize the amazing learning that is taking place and then help her to clarify the category:

Yes, that does look like a “dog” but it is really a “cat.”

Isn’t that a cute “cat”?

Yes, that is a “car” and this is also a “car.”

That is a little toy “car” and this is a big “car” that we ride in.

Your baby may also use a sign or create a sign that she then uses for everything. This is equivalent to a speaking baby who learns the word “that.” Suddenly everything becomes “that” either spoken or by using a sign. This is because of the way in which you speak to your baby – she often hears you saying sentences such as “Do you want that?” or “Is that what you want?” Your baby intelligently concludes that the word “that” is a variable that potentially stands for everything. You can help her to move through this phase by asking for more information and offering choices that include signs in the following way:

“I don’t understand what you want?”

“Do you want the dog (make the sign for the word dog) or the train (make the sign for the word train)?”

“Show me with your hands.”

It is very common for you to miss your baby’s first attempts at signing with you. The following are some indications that your baby is ready to sign or is already signing with you.

Your baby probably understands signing as a form of communication if she looks at your hands even if you are not signing or if she looks between an object and your hands or if she makes an inquiring expression and looks at your hands. If you think that your baby understands the concept of signing, you may be able to confirm your assumption by playing a game with your baby. Place two favorite toys in front of your baby – for example, a teddy bear and a dog. Make sure that you have taught your baby the signs for both of the toys. Now tell your baby with words and signs the name for each toy. Next, ask your baby “where is the (make the sign for the word bear)” – but do not say the word. If your baby looks at, points to, or picks up the teddy bear you can be certain that she understands that signs are symbols for objects and actions.

Your baby is almost certainly signing with you if your baby looks at you or looks at your hands or looks at her hands or looks at an object and makes small movements with her hands. If you think that your baby is signing, you may be able to confirm your assumption by playing another game with your baby. Place the same two favorite toys in front of your baby – for example, a teddy bear and a dog. Make sure that you have taught your baby the signs for both of the toys. Now tell your baby with words and signs the names for each toy. Next, pick up the teddy bear and ask your baby “what is this?” If your baby makes any movements with her hands then you can be reasonably certain that she is signing with you.

How to know if your baby is signing

Your baby will probably use fewer and fewer signs as she is able to successfully communicate with you by speaking more and more words. However, once your baby is speaking, signing is an invaluable tool for allowing your baby to complete a sentence that requires a word that is difficult to say such as crocodile or alligator. Even at two to three years of age, many very bright toddlers still have trouble pronouncing certain spoken words and can become very frustrated because they are not able to completely communicate a simple idea.

Your signing baby is also likely to continue to sign after she have begun speaking in the following situations: in response to a confused look on your face to clarify what she is trying to say, when she is unable to speak such as when she is eating, when she is too upset to speak, when she is asked not to speak such as at a library or at a live performance, to emphasize an important point, to communicate with you in a place that is too loud to hear or with the birth of a baby brother or sister to be able to communicate with her new sibling.

You will be amazed at how quickly your baby will begin combining signs with or without a little encouragement from you. Some of the signs that are easily combined with other words and likely to be of interest to your baby are the following:

Combining words with “more”
“More” is a great sign to combine with other signs because this word helps your baby to ask for more of something that she wants. Some examples are: more to drink, more to eat, and more balloons.

Combining with words “where”
The sign for the word “where” helps your baby ask for objects or actions that she cannot see. Some examples are: where is the cat, where are we going, and where is the drink. This sign allows your baby to let you know that she is not just commenting on a particular object or action but wants to know where it is.

Combining with words “all done” or “all gone”
Because your baby is likely to want to clearly mark the end of activities such as reading a book or comment on something that is no longer in sight, “all done” or “all gone” is a great sign to teach. Your baby may enjoy signing that the milk is all gone, or the airplane is all gone, or the book is all done. This sign also helps you to transition your baby from one activity to another or emphasize that you do not have any more of something that she wants.

Combining other words
The signs for the words “mommy” and “baby” are favorites to combine with animal words such as a mommy duck and a baby duck. The signs for the words “big” and “little” can be used to describe almost anything such as the big cow and the little horse. In addition, signs for the words for colors are also a great choice to combine with other words as all objects have a color.