Most children begin to talk around 12 months old, but babies try to communicate with their parents much earlier.

One way of teaching a baby or toddler to express feelings, wants, and needs without crying and whining is through simple sign language.

The sign language taught to normally hearing infants and toddlers is different from 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?”

Possible benefits of using sign language for your little ones include:

  • earlier ability to understand spoken words, especially from ages 1 to 2
  • 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
  • potential IQ increase

From what we know, most of the possible gains found in children seem to level off after age 3. Children 3 years and older who were taught sign language don’t appear to have significantly greater abilities than children who didn’t sign.

But it may still be valuable to sign with your youngster for several reasons.

Many 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 themselves.

While this type of sign language may help your child communicate easier, more research is needed to discover if it can help advance language, literacy, or cognition.

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 there are some that suggest the exact opposite effect.

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

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’s 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 5 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 5 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 offer instruction for parents, but there’s usually 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 toward 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

Before they learn to speak, it can be difficult to communicate with your toddler. Teaching a basic sign language may offer a way to help them express emotions and needs.

It may also promote bonding and early development.