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Bridge the communication gap

  • Illustrations courtesy of Baby Sign Language LLC
    Illustrations courtesy of Baby Sign Language LLC
Published October 07. 2013 05:00PM

Your child is crying so you attempt to see if he is hungry, needs a diaper change or is sleepy.

Sometimes these simple checks don't solve the problem and both the child and parent become frustrated because they can't find the solution to meet each other needs.

But what if you can help your child communicate before he learns to speak?

Baby sign language, which uses American Sign Language signs that are associated with a child's everyday activities, has been gaining popularity for years with many parents and has helped bridge the communication gap between when a child knows what he wants and when he can verbally ask for it.

Is it beneficial?

Stephanie Gardiner-Walsh, a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing in North Carolina and a research assistant in special education services for deaf and hard of hearing, said that there are varied responses to whether teaching a baby signs is a good idea or if it will delay speech development.

"There is no harm actually," she said. "Early communication reduces frustration, however little empirical research is available. Early sign is often denied to deaf children, provided for hearing children, and optimal for children who have autism.

"Early language can help parents and children reduce frustration," she continued. "Children can 'fine tune' their large muscle motor skills before their fine motor skills of tongue and vocal cords. In other words, you can have conversation earlier."

In an article published on the Mayo Clinic website, Dr. Jay L. Hoecker, an emeritus member of the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine states that "Baby sign language can be an effective communication tool. Teaching and practicing baby sign language also can be fun and give you and your child an opportunity to bond."

Parents should remember that teaching their child sign language does not mean that it is necessary to teach them colors, numbers and the alphabet. It means teaching simple signs that will be used in the child's daily routines.

Gardiner-Walsh noted that some parents looking into whether signing is right for their family are concerned about delays in speech.

She said not to worry because research shows that babies drop sign soon after they are able to speak because speaking is faster and more precise.

"It is a bridge between early ability and slightly later development," she said. "There is no negative research against baby sign."

A 2000 study conducted by Drs. Susan W. Goodwyn, Linda P. Acredolo and Catherine A. Brown and funded by the National Institutes of Health, revealed that babies exposed to sign language in addition to verbal training scored better on multiple measures of language acquisition at 2 years of age than children who were only exposed to verbal training.

The study looked at the impact on verbal development of purposefully encouraging infants to use symbolic gestures.

In their findings, the three groups of children used in the study (one signing group and two control groups) were tested on both receptive and expressive language development at 11, 15, 19, 24, 30, and 36 months.

By age 8, the study showed that the children who were taught sign language had an IQ 12 points higher than the non-signing group, even though they had not used signing in years.

When to start


There is no set time when parents who wish to teach their child to sign should start.

Gardiner-Walsh explained that deaf parents begin to teach their child, who may be hearing, signs right at birth, but this does not delay normal communication development.

In hearing parents, on the other hand, she said that anytime is good to start showing signs but there is an optimal window where children are most receptive.

"Hearing children of hearing parents will learn receptively before expressively," she said. "If your baby is reaching and grabbing, their motor skills are developed enough for expressive to start. That being said, 'optimal' is a window."

Typically, children will begin to respond with signing back around 8 months old right around the time they start using their hands to wave, clap or point but some can begin earlier and appear ready to learn around 6 months.

Gardiner-Walsh said that there are a few things to look for to know if your baby is ready to begin to learn signs. They include:

• Joint attention: Can baby look at you and keep 2-3 second contact. Is baby starting to follow pointing for meaning?

• Babble: If your baby is babbling (has m and b sounds) he is already experimenting with language. Pair up the sign but expect to see hand babbles too.

"Babies are sponges," she said. "They are going to make receptive connections quickly if exposure is consistent. Expect several weeks to months to pass before you get signs back. Hand over hand (helping baby do it) will reinforce movements and speed up the process; but remember developmental milestones have ranges and this is one of them."

Gardiner-Walsh noted that parents need to realize that their child's signs, once they begin responding with signing, won't be perfect every time.

"Just like baby babble, baby sign has imperfect movements and hand shapes," she said. "Sometimes parents will need to translate early signs just like early voice."

Remember, to be successful at teaching a child to sign, parents must be dedicated to it and practice the signs with their child often because children learn through repetition. They should also still continue to speak to the child even when signing a word.

Hoecker explained in his article that parents should first be familiar with the signs they plan to teach.

They should also set realistic goals and not get frustrated if the child doesn't pick up on the signs right away; and make the lessons as interactive as possible by holding the child in your lap and making the signs with their hands.

What words should

I teach?

There are a number of websites available that provide suggestions on which words are best to teach children first.

Gardiner-Walsh said that you should start with useful words, actions that are part of your child's everyday activities, including bed, diaper, eat, drink, mommy and daddy.

Other good starter signs to teach include: more, all done, want, please, thank-you, friends, kiss, play, stop, wait, yes and no.

The words you teach your child first should be practical and ones that are used frequently.

"Many people make the mistake of teaching colors or numbers or letters," she said. "How many typical babies use these? It's best to teach words that you use all the time in conversation or request."

Once the child has learned and mastered these signs, parents can begin to throw in a few "fun" signs, like dog and cat.

Teaching aids

When preparing to teach your child sign language, make sure to look at a number of sources.

Gardiner-Walsh said that her favorite is the "Signing Time" DVD series, which includes over 100 signs, songs and stories; as well as songs for potty training support.

She noted that parents should be careful if they use a book to learn the signs.

"Books are difficult because of misunderstanding the sign and the picture," she said. "You don't want to teach the wrong word."

She cited the example of one parent who tried to teach the child signs from a book. The parent thought they were teaching the word "rubber ducky" when in fact they were signing "condom ducky."

"There are also contextual meanings, so sometimes a words has multiple signs and meanings."

One particularly good website available is, which has everything a parent needs to successfully learn and teach their child signs, including a videos, diagrams, charts and more.

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