Do you speak baby sign language?

Jule and one of her twins.
Jule and one of her twins. Photo: Getty Images

Every time I say the word "milk" my hands do a squeezing movement, like I'm milking a cow's udder. Do you think this is a bit odd?

We're trying to teach our six-month-old twin girls baby sign language. When I first heard about it I thought it was one of those fancy newfangled things for overachieving parents - like, "my six month old baby already speaks three languages, loooooves Mozart and kicks it like Beckham."

But babies are pretty slow on the uptake and it takes them years before they're able to vocalise their thoughts and demands (even though their brains are actually the most amazing things in the world!!).

The theory is that long before toddlers can form words, their smart little brains do actually know exactly what they want but can't communicate it. As parents we spend the first years guessing what's wrong when our babies cry, and while some child experts say there are different cries for different needs, so far I've just pretty much gone through the possible catalogue of complaints (hungry, poo, needs cuddles, tired, and so on) and hope that something will help. I've often wished that my little darlings could just tell me what's wrong instead of crying their little heads off.

But talking requires a lot of wiring in a baby's brain and fine motor skills, like moving your vocal chords 420 times per second, and learning all that takes years. When you want something and your silly parents just don't get it, it can lead to a lot of frustration and what grown-ups call tantrums.

In the 19th century, American linguist William Dwight Whitney noticed that babies of deaf parents who used sign language were able to communicate at an age when the offspring of hearing parents were still babbling and generally being grumpy.

He was a busy man and didn't really get around to doing anything with his observation, so it took until the 1970s until this tidbit of information was rediscovered and put into action. Since then, several studies and programs have been developed.

Some studies found that teaching babies sign language did help them to communicate with their parents and reduced frustration. Using baby sign language, they say, also gives children a head start on language acquisition and helps parents to bond.

Anything that might help my girls be less frustrated is worth a shot, right? There are heaps of different ways to teach sign language, and to make it even more confusing there's New Zealand sign language, Australian sign language, American sign language ... they're all quite different.


Around the country you can find workshops by different providers and there are books, flash cards, DVDs and YouTube videos. A bunch of mums from my antenatal class went with Molly Kelly and her Signing Time classes. She's teaching American Sign Language which apparently mostly uses one hand which makes signing easier, especially when holding a baby.

Using lots of songs she taught us the essentials for food, sleeping, animals, transportation and so on. Learning them wasn't hard and most importantly it was a lot of fun.

Now it's on us to remember to use them. My favourite is the sign for airplane, which is not unlike the heavy metal horns. Every time I see a plane I raise my hand and want to shout "Hell yeah!", but mostly stick to saying "see, there's a plane flying in the sky."

I have no idea how well it will work, but wouldn't it be amazing if our girls start signing to each other in six months or so?