Toddler Sign Language: Tips for Communication

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on January 7, 2016Written by Ruben J. Rucoba, MD on January 7, 2016
toddler doing sign language

Most children begin to talk around 12 months old, but all parents know their babies want to communicate with them much earlier than that.

How can a parent teach a baby or toddler to express themself besides crying and whining?

One way is through simple sign language.

The benefits

Be aware that the sign language taught to normally hearing infants and toddlers is not exclusively the American Sign Language (ASL) used for the hearing impaired.

It’s a limited vocabulary of simple signs, some of which are part of the ASL signs, meant to express the common needs of this age group, as well as the objects they frequently encounter.

Most commonly, such signs will signify concepts like “more,” “all gone,” “thank you,” and “where is it?”

Benefits of using sign language for your little ones include:

  • earlier ability to understand spoken words, especially from age 1 to 2 years old
  • earlier use of spoken language skills, especially from 1 to 2 years old
  • earlier use of sentence structure in spoken language
  • decrease in crying and whining in infants
  • better bonding between parent and child
  • increased IQ seen at age 8 years old

Most of the gains found in children leveled off after the age of 3 years. That is, after 3 years, the children who were taught sign language did not have significantly greater language abilities than the children who didn’t sign. But it’s still valuable to sign with your youngster for several reasons.

First of all, parents who used sign language reported that their infants and toddlers were able to communicate so much to them during those critical years, including emotions. As any parent of a toddler knows, it’s often difficult to know why your child is behaving the way they are. But with sign language, the child has another way of expressing herself.

In addition, as one study showed, there may be long-term benefits to using sign language, as the IQ scores of the toddlers in one study were higher many years later than their peers who didn’t sign.

Drawbacks

The good news is that there are no real drawbacks to using signs with your young children. Many parents express concern that signing will delay the expression of verbal communication. No studies have ever found that to be true, and many demonstrate the exact opposite effect.

There are studies that suggest the use of sign language does not help infants and toddlers acquire verbal language earlier than usual, but even these studies don’t show that signing delays the ability to talk.

In fact, one study noted that although there was no significant improvement in accelerating linguistic development in infants and toddlers using sign language, the mothers using the sign language were more responsive to their infants and encouraged more independent action from their children than mothers who didn’t sign.

How to teach sign language to infants and toddlers

So how do parents teach these signs to their children, and which signs do they teach? There are several ways to teach babies how to sign. One way that has been described is to follow these rules:

  • Start at a young age, like 6 months. If your child is older, don’t worry, as any age is appropriate to start signing.
  • Try to keep sessions teaching sign language short, about five minutes each.
  • First, perform the sign and say the word. For example, say the word “more” and perform the sign.
  • If your baby performs the sign, then reward them with some sort of positive reinforcement, like a toy, or if the session occurs during mealtime, a bite of food.
  • If they don’t perform the sign within five seconds, then gently guide their hands to perform the sign.
  • Every time they perform the sign, give the reward. And repeat the sign yourself to reinforce it.
  • Repeating this process for three sessions each day will quickly result in your child learning basic signs.

For more detailed information, there are websites with books and videos that more comprehensively teach parents how to do this, usually for a fee.

One website, Baby Signs Too, was started by the researchers who published the groundbreaking studies on infant and toddler sign language. Another similar website is Baby Sign Language.

Each of these websites (and others like them) has “dictionaries” of signs for words and phrases to use for infants and toddlers. Some basic signs can be found below.

MeaningSign
Drinkthumb to mouth
Eatbring pinched fingers of one hand towards mouth
Morepinched index fingers touching at midline
Where?palms up
Gentlepatting back of hand
Bookopen and close palms
Waterrubbing palms together
Smellyfinger to wrinkled nose
Afraidpat chest repeatedly
Pleasepalm on upper right chest and moving hand clockwise
Thank youpalm to lips and then extend forearm outward and down
All doneforearms up, rotating hands
Bedpalms pressed together next to cheek, leaning head toward hands
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