Monday, February 25, 2013

Baby Sign Language is Cool! Easy, Fun Communication with Your Infant Using ASL

After good morning hugs & tickles...signing time!

Easy, Fun Communication With Your Infant Using ASL

Several years ago I was friends with a deaf[*] woman and was always intrigued when watching her sign with her baby.

When pregnant I heard about the trend of parents who weren’t deaf teaching their babies ASL (American Sign Language) or a modified “baby sign” as a way to create clear, two-way communication before a baby was able to speak. I knew that parents and babies had many ways to communicate and express without needing to use sign, but again I was intrigued.

I read several books and websites to learn more. Many teachers and authors encouraged parents to begin signing with their children between 6-8 months, and advised that though babies would be learning—they’d usually remain unable to sign back until 9 months, 12 months, or older.

Encouraging parents to sign with their children at any age seemed beneficial and fun, but the information I found was a little different from what I’d observed with my friend and discovered in the deaf community (and what with a little contemplation makes sense):  deaf parents use sign to communicate with their newborns from day one. Just like newborns learning to speak from day one with their parents, babies can learn sign from day one!

I concluded that there would be no harm in starting right when my baby was born—and that at the very least it would indeed be fun. When she was a few weeks old we started with a single set of flash cards. (Not knowing any ASL myself, my baby and I were learning together.)

The first words we learned were: “mommy, daddy, milk, hungry, bed,” and “blanket.”  Then we moved on to more family members, body parts, and animals. With the addition of more flash cards, books, and an online ASL video dictionary, we averaged a few words per day.


Many websites and books offer in-depth, step-by-step processes, tips, and timelines for teaching a baby to sign, including details of time of day, where you should place your body in relation to the baby, and so on.  That information may be beneficial, but it can also make the process seem complex or overwhelming—especially for new parents who are working hard just to get through their busy days (and sweet, sleepless nights!).  

As before—taking cues from my deaf friend—I found the “how-to” is far simpler than one would initially believe: Anytime you’re saying the word or doing the action—sign it.  And that’s it! 

I would show my daughter the flash cards after nursing and when we were hanging out in bed together (which I believe was helpful), but this language is learned best just as any other.  Again, while you’re doing it (whatever “it” is), say it and sign it.

Your baby wakes up and you say, “Hello, my precious baby!” and sign “baby.”

Say, “Mama loves you!” and sign “I” “Love” “You.”

Your baby looks ready for the breast/bottle and you say, “Time for your milk,” put your baby to your breast/bottle, and sign “milk.”

Your cat walks in the room, your baby notices, and you say, “There’s Muffin, our kitty-cat!” and sign “cat.”

Before you know, hands are flying and you’re having full signing conversations—at least one-way.  Our babies likely understand far sooner than we’d believe, but when do they start signing with us?


Keep signing away and have no worries—that beautiful baby is soaking it in!  Just as with spoken words, they’re learning them. We don’t need to feel pressure or discouragement about timelines for speaking or signing back...or most other things for that matter. (How many of us waste energy worrying because Lil' Billy is 1-pound under what the doc said is normal for his age or Suzy isn't crawling yet like that baby next door!) We come in all shapes, colors and speeds.

But do remain alert: their first signs may be subtle or partial movements, but soon you’ll recognize that they are signing.

For example, when we’d wake up (and after the requisite 30 minutes of hugs and tickles) I’d say to my baby, “Should we open the window?” and sign “open the window” (it’s one movement for this action). At five months—after just seeing the sign—her eyes would go straight to the window in the bedroom; later she began to point at the window; and several months later she started doing the sign.

There are countless variables and all babies will sign at different times.  However, from my experience and that of many parents who started with their babies immediately, the amount of two-way communication (even if they’re not signing back yet) that can occur before or by 12-months old is nothing short of amazing and delightful.

It was no surprise that my baby’s first sign was “milk.” What was surprising was that she did it for the first time at 3 months and regularly at 4-5 months old.

Because milk is such a vital part of their experience (if you’re signing in the early days, they’re going to see the sign for milk about a dozen times every 24 hours!) and because the sign is a movement for which they have the control to create early (opening and closing the hand in a “milking” movement), I learned it’s a natural first sign.

There were many other signs that were initially surprising to see early on and then later seemed obvious.  For example, when my baby started teething at 5 months old, I would use a homeopathic gel to soothe her gums. When applying it, I would use the sign for pain/hurt and place it over my teeth and say “teeth hurt.” (The same sign placed over the stomach would mean “stomach pain,” and so on with other body parts.) She learned immediately to associate that sign with the relief she felt after I applied the gel, and she would stop crying when seeing me sign it—clear communication.

I would do the same thing for other situations when she appeared uncomfortable or to want something. She didn’t sign these back until about 9 months, but after the first few weeks of me showing her the sign, when she would cry, I could sign: “change diaper,” “milk,” “blanket,” and “teeth hurt,” and she would stop crying immediately when I’d hit on the correct topic and could tend immediately to her need.

Of course we can check a diaper, offer the breast/bottle, apply teething gel and attend to other needs and activities without signing—but how fun and empowering for an infant to have a form of clear communication and expression other than tears and cries!

What about words such as: please, thank you, morning, wind, sunset, cold, share, happy, family, friend, home, and—best of all—love?

With objects and activities, I believed she would learn the signs quickly and that proved correct.  However, I had no idea how to teach signs for concepts, time/season/weather, courtesy, relationships and feelings, so I decided simply to proceed as I had been, using them along with speech and hoping she would learn their meaning with time and use in context.

To make a one-year story short, after her first sign "milk," her next few signs appeared at 5-7 months and included: “mommy, daddy, book,” and “hat. By nine months she could understand a few dozen, and at one year understood over 100 signs and would use at least half of them, including such wonderful words as: sun, moon, rainbow, clouds, music, art, dance, happy, and LOVE!



There are commonly used adjustments to certain signs from ASL for use with babies.  For example, the ASL sign for “help” is a fist with the thumb up placed in the palm of the opposite hand and raising the hands up together.  That’s complex for a baby, so a commonly accepted modified sign is to place the open palms of both hands on the chest and pat.

I wasn’t concerned with strict adherence to the official modifications. As with spoken language, you’ll find that you develop your own slang, nuance, and “pronunciation”—or the way you do the sign.  For example, “art” is the sign I used when asking my baby if she wanted to color.  At first, that was the only understanding of the word and she would sign “art” to ask for her crayons.  By around 16 months, her understanding expanded and she would sign “art” when looking at a painting or sculpture.


There are numerous studies indicating the benefits of learning sign for a child’s intellect (and rather than quoting reports and papers, we’ll just work on the premise that all learning benefits intellect). However, we pursued it primarily as a source of fun and to give our baby a tool to express herself—which it did. 

An unexpected benefit was its use in our multi-lingual family. Whenever anyone used a word from another language, we could use the sign and our daughter would then instantly have a connection to understand the new word.

For parents who use sign as their primary language, the information presented here would likely be old news, but for parents like me—previously unfamiliar with using ASL or signing with babies—I hope this serves as encouragement for how easy and fun it can be.

There was never a time that our baby signed in public and someone (from grandmas to rocker-dudes) didn’t come up and say, Oh, wow! Is that baby signing?  How cool!”

It is way cool!

For parents interested in learning more, the tools I found most helpful are listed below.  If you’ve used excellent tools not listed here, I’d love to hear about them.

• Monta Z. Briant's Baby Flash Card Deck - the first thing we used and my daughter still enjoys working with them.

Barrons ASL 500 pack flash card deck (for you, not for baby). These cards are small and have a hole punch (with ring included) so you can make “flip decks” of the signs you’re currently learning.  Very handy, literally!

Baby Einstein First Signs DVD – there is debate over allowing infants to watch any TV. However, in time spans of ~15 minutes from age 6 months on, we found our daughter definitely learned from this DVD program. If mom and dad have decided that minimal viewing is OK and desperately need help for a 15-minute break…here’s a productive way to take it. is a website with an excellent video dictionary. Type in any word and the video pops up to demonstrate the sign.

Signing Time –created by a woman whose daughter, Leah, is deaf, this TV show (episodes can be purchased on DVD) is precious and effective. They recommend it for children ages 1-8, and have produced a special set of DVDs just for babies. They have also just launched an online dictionary with the most common signs used with babies.

ALLIE CHEE After earning a BA in literature and a 2nd degree black belt in Korean martial arts, 20 years traveling in 50 countries, working in numerous entrepreneurial ventures, and serving as co-publisher of a leading financial industry magazine, Allie Chee lives in Silicon Valley with her husband and daughter and is a student at Stanford.

Her articles have appeared in: 
•  The Well Being Journal
•  The Holistic Networker
•  The Birthing Site
•  Natural Mother Magazine 
•  MidwiferyToday

Her published titles are: New Mother, Free Love & Go, Jane!

Website:  Facebook: 
NEW MOTHER on Amazon

*No affiliation or compensation associated with the products mentioned in this post.*

[*] She and other deaf people have told me they prefer the use of the term “deaf,” so that’s the term I use.

1 comment:

Sandra Rose Hughes said...

My little one is 8 months old and he and I are learning sign language right now. It's very enjoyable. So far, he isn't signing back yet, but he stares intently at my hands when I am using the signs.