Teaching your baby sign language

Lucas signing "eat".
Lucas signing "eat". 

Babies learn to talk during the first two years of their life. Various sounds may be uttered in the first month or two, and by 10-14 months babies usually speak their first word. 

Babies who are taught sign language are often able to communicate by sign well before they learn how to communicate with words.

Mother of two and owner of two childcare centres in Sydney, Nesha O'Neill started teaching her son Dylan Auslan baby sign language, taught by Australian Baby Hands, at three months of age.

"As I work in childcare, it's all too common for me to see children getting upset and frustrated when they can't communicate what they want," she says. "So when I saw a way for me to help my pre-verbal kids communicate without getting aggravated, I jumped on it."

The family started to use sign immediately after the birth of her second child, Olivia, with Nesha incorporating specific gestures into the children's daily routines, talking to them as they went about their day.

Leanne Guglielmi, mother to 20-month-old Valentino, started to use baby sign when her son was nine months old. She chose five specific signs to teach him at first: 'milk', 'drink', 'eat', 'ball' and 'telephone'.

"After two months of signing daily with Valentino, he clearly used the sign for 'milk' with me, I was thrilled. We chose these signs with some geared towards helping us understand his needs, and a couple to make signing fun for him, allowing him to express himself and communicate about things he was interested in playing with, such as a ball and phone."

Like Leanne, many parents choose to divide the signs they teach their baby - the two categories being need-based signs, which are those where the baby can express something they require such as 'bed', 'hungry' and 'change me', and motivating signs which focus on things which are of interest to the infant - for example 'teddy', 'car' and 'book'.

For Leanne, Valentino's use of the sign for 'help', changed her daily cycle of dealing with a grizzling toddler to one in which he would ask when he needed her assistance with a broken toy, a frustrating puzzle or simply to open a door.


"After listening to him whinge over a toy which was switched off, not realising what he wanted from me, I started to use the sign 'help' to him. After two days he had learned the sign and would calmly and silently walk into whichever room I was in, sign 'help' and then take my hand to where he needed me and point at the toy and sign 'help' again," she says. "We were really communicating - it was brilliant!"

Nesha has found her children's use of the 'please' sign particularly rewarding for both herself, Dylan and Olivia. "When they're bleating at me about what they want (biscuits, toys etc) they now know to sign or say 'please' which makes me take a breath and feel a bit better about it all."

There has been significant global research into the benefits of baby sign for children, including its successful use with children with developmental delays and special needs. Studies also show that children who have been taught baby sign language have increased and early spoken vocabularies, and improved cognitive and communication skills throughout childhood.

Leanne's experience is testament to the accelerated speech development enjoyed experienced by children who use sign language early in life. "At 16 months his spoken language exploded: he uses four words in a sentence, and speaks some Italian as well as English at home. As soon as he has mastered the spoken word, he drops the use of that specific sign, and we introduce another sign in its place to encourage his continued language development."

At Nesha's childcare centre, staff and children alike have reaped the social and developmental rewards of implementing communication through baby sign. 

"We've seen some lovely examples of children seeing others who were upset, recognising their signs, and trotting off to collect the item that the other child wants - such as a teddy or book etc - and bringing it back for them.

"We choose to introduce some signs very early on to teach the children social skills: the 'stop' sign is preferable to their squealing when they don't like what's going on. The 'please' sign is preferable to children demanding things from their parents and carers. The 'sorry' sign (with a stroke on the other person's arm) is a nice way to teach the basics of apologising and empathy."

Baby sign has benefits for parents and children - enriching familial relationships, helping parents understand their baby's needs, enhancing a baby's confidence and self-expression and aiding in language development. Whatever the practical implications of introducing baby sign to your family, it is and should be a fun way to bond with your children.