a peek inside the fishbowl

25 Feb, 2010

Babies and sign language and communication: how cool is that?

Posted by andrea tomkins in: parenting|Publishing/writing/career stuff

When our kids were small we had a lot of friends who were childless and single. I spoke to these people about how absolutely THRILLING it was that our kids were learning to talk but wasn’t sure if they truly understood how exciting it was. Look at it this way, I said, what if all of a sudden your cat could talk to you? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Don’t you want to know what’s on their mind? Well THIS IS EXACTLY THE SAME THING.

There was no disagreement with that. Ever.

To be able to communicate with someone who doesn’t yet know how to talk (and doesn’t have the physical ability to do so) seems like a minor miracle.

When Sarah was small I was determined to teach her baby sign language. It was just beginning to be a hot topic. And … then I promptly forgot.

Oh well.

Emma had a bit of sign language in preschool. I STILL know the signs for whale, cheese, and crackers, and black cat. I am sure that is going to come in handy some day. :)

All kidding aside, if you could find a way to communicate with your infant or toddler early – that is, before he or she could learn to speak – would you?

There is a sweet place to sign up for baby sign language classes in Ottawa. Check out the piece I wrote for SavvyMom about a class that is specifically geared to parents and babies.

Have you tried teaching sign language to your baby? I’d love to hear about your experience.

17 Responses to "Babies and sign language and communication: how cool is that?"

1 | oh amanda

February 25th, 2010 at 8:37 am


We have several Signing Time DVDs and I cannot speak more highly of them! My daughter started signing (or at least responding to signs) before 12 months. And by 2years she was signing well over 100 signs. My son is now 16 months and signs all the time. It has been so helpful b/c I can understand them before they can speak. They can communicate with me. And it even helps in small ways…my son can’t say “please” but he’s been signing “please” for months! I’m already teaching him to be polite!

Here’s a post I did about Signing Time if you’re interested: http://ohamanda.com/2009/09/15/top-ten-tuesday-sign-language-tips-for-babies/

2 | DaniGirl

February 25th, 2010 at 8:38 am


We did baby sign language with Tristan, musta been about a million years ago. In fact, it was somewhere in Westboro, if I remember. He was really young, maybe 6 mos old, and I remember thinking at the time that 9 or 10 mos old might have been a little more appropriate.

We learned the signs for a few things like cheese and milk and mama, but the one we found most useful was “more”.

It might be because my kids were all early talkers, or because the first child is all-consuming where the subsequent ones just try to fit into the chaos, but we never bothered with Lucas or Simon. When I think of my brother, who didn’t talk until he was 3, I think this might have saved both him and my mom a lot of frustration. And maybe Tristan’s current eloquence does stem from those early developmental opportunities.

In sum (sorry!) I have always thought it was a really neat idea, but I’d say it was closer to a parlour trick than an actual communication tool for us. But you’re right, there’s nothing like that feeling of breakthrough when you first realize you are conversing with your child. Maybe that’s especially true for first-time parents — or maybe I’m just jaded! :)

3 | Chrissy

February 25th, 2010 at 8:47 am


I taught both my girls sign language. The first I started at around 7 months and she was signing “milk”, “food”, “more”, “please”, and some other basic things by 9 months. The second, Heidi, I started signing “milk” every time we nursed from birth. She started signing back around 7 months. From that point on she picked up signs really quickly.

I love baby sign language. It has made communication so much easier. I always know when Heidi wants to nurse versus when she’s just thirsty or hungry. She can tell me what activity she wants to do and she always signs “please” and “thank you”!

I didn’t feel the need to take a class. There are lots of good books on the market and some really helpful websites that show you how to properly sign.

Cute story: I babysat a little girl who is 3 months older than Heidi and she actually taught Heidi how to sign “fish”. Heidi 11 months old at the time! I had heard toddlers could communicate with each other through sign language, but never actually believed it until I saw it happening right in front of me!

4 | Stacey

February 25th, 2010 at 10:43 am


We did signing with both of ours. We started around the time they started solid foods. By 10 and 11 months, they were both signing. We just did simple signs like more, all done, milk (nurse), please, thank you. For some reason, both of them loved to sign “bird”!

It made our lives simpler, I think, having the girls be able to ask for things. I cringe when I hear toddlers grunting and screaming, trying their best to make themselves understood.

5 | Carla

February 25th, 2010 at 11:16 am


I love signing with kids. We’ve used it with both kids, and it is sUper helpful including for the adults. With #1 we started signing at 5 months and she signed back starting 11 months and #2 started at 2 months and she signed back starting 5 months (first sign: ‘change’ for change diaper, a big help in figuring out the grumpies). We still use it with my husband and kids to communicate in a crowded loud room (often ‘come’) or when yelling across the room just wouldn’t be appropriate (most used sign in this case: ‘stop!’). Classes are not necessary, we used books, looked up signs here: http://www.aslpro.com/cgi-bin/aslpro/aslpro.cgi and http://www.signingsavvy.com/ which shows the videos of the signs, awesome and also borrowed books from the library that show you the signs to use while you sing a song. Highly recommend it.

6 | Finola

February 25th, 2010 at 12:44 pm


I did a little bit of sign language with my girls, but they were both the type of baby that wanted to be held ALL the time. I had a hard time ever having hands free to pursue it properly.

But the point I actually wanted to make was that you don’t really need a class or a book if you just want to communicate with your own child. I just made up my own signs, and then just made sure to use them consistently. It worked great, and I wish that I had been more persistent with it, because I completely get the sheer joy that comes about from being able to talk to your child. It’s just the best!

7 | andrea

February 25th, 2010 at 1:14 pm


I’ve heard a lot of stories about baby sign language and have done some reading too – it is definitely communication!

There are a lot of great resources out there, but from having dropped in on one of the classes I can honestly say I can see the benefits of being there in person instead of studying at home alone. I bet for some people (there were both moms and dads at the class) going to a class (whether it’s for sign language, swim lessons or whatever) is a rare outing which gives them an opportunity to interact with other adults.

Interestingly, the classes are just as much (if not more) for the grownups than for the babies! :)

It’s worth noting that this particular class teaches actual ASL. I think there’s a definite benefit there – like learning any language, right?

8 | Rae

February 25th, 2010 at 1:23 pm


We’ve signed with all of the kids, but have switched from “baby sign” to ASL with #3 as my partner is deaf. It’s wonderful! It’s so much easier when you can communicate!!

9 | Jenn

February 25th, 2010 at 3:29 pm


My son has oral motor difficulties. He is 2 1/2 and has been signing since he was 8 months. Getting him the help he needs has been frustrating enough for us, I can’t imagine where we would be today without having this tool for him to communicate with us. He is happy, well understood and thrives in all other developmental areas. He is making up his own signs everyday uses elaborate gesture stories to get his point across. He is such a bright kid who has been spared so much frustration because he can communicate this way. Studies have shown that signing promotes to early use of language and that the signs that they pick up on tend to also be the first words they vocalize.

10 | Carrie C

February 25th, 2010 at 3:37 pm


We took a class in signing for babies when our daughter was about 5 months old. It was ASL based, with some modifications for smaller hands (for example, the sign for puppy involves finger snapping, which is hard for tiny fingers to do. It was modified to just be a pat on the leg)

We used basic signs: eat, more, milk, drink, no, stop, help, please and thank you. When she started talking, we also showed her the signs to go with her new words.

I love that we gave her the tools to communicate early. She was an easy baby, and this certainly helped, as she was able to tell us what she wanted. She was also an early talker, and at 3.5 can converse very well with anyone, grownups included. I think signing had something to do with it.

I would encourage any new parent to give it a try. It’s easy to do, but you do have to be consistent with it and stick to it.

My favorite part about teaching my daughter signing? When she flashes the sign for ‘I love you’ at me from across the playground.

11 | andrea

February 25th, 2010 at 3:52 pm


Am loving your success stories, and CARRIE, that is adorable.

12 | Javamom

February 25th, 2010 at 4:00 pm


I used the functional words in sign language to help them communicate with me. ‘More’ was a big one, and lasted well into the talking age (where they would sign ‘more’ and say the word at the same time), also ‘milk’. I used food words and action words mostly and not so much “fun” words like animals. Again, it was an attempt to get them to clarify what it was they wanted.

I think it’s ingenious! And the look on the tiny tot’s faces when they succeed in telling you what they want using their body to ‘speak’ – priceless!

13 | Miche

February 25th, 2010 at 4:45 pm


We also started sign with our little one when she was about 6 months. Lucky for us too, because she was slower than her peers to vocalize.

Like Carrie, we only focused on the basics: please, thank you, change (diaper), eat, drink, more and added a few more as required. (And it is absolutely lovely when your baby signs “thank you” to you after you change their diaper!)

I had a bit of ASL under my belt already and used this site to supplement: http://commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/aslweb/browser.htm

She still uses it once in a while. (She can “talk” even when her mouth is full.) In public, it’s nice to know if someone needs a toilet, without having to shout it across the room. It’s also a skill that’s come in handy when I’ve lost my voice. I could still communicate with the family!

Like Carrie’s daughter, “I love you” continues to be one of her favourite signs.

I don’t think expensive classes or materials are mandatory.

14 | Laura

February 25th, 2010 at 4:49 pm


My sister used sign language with her daughter. I thought it was very helpful. Her daughter had (and still has) a healthy appetite. That child was always signing “more” – it was so helpful and adorable.

15 | mchen

February 27th, 2010 at 9:43 am


I’m not a mother (one day, hopefully :) but many of my friends have taught their kiddos sign language, and then raved about how wonderful it is, and how their children can communicate ideas and wants before they can make out the spoken words.

I once read a related study that, to this day, fascinates me… You know how infants babble before they form words? Non-sensical syllables strung together, almost like test-driving their tongues and vocal chords? Well, I don’t remember the exact stats, but the researchers of this study found that the babies of hearing-impaired parents actually BABBLE with their hands before they can sign properly. That is to say, they make poignant part-words with their little paws, more deliberate and specific gestures than just waving their arms around, and so on. How COOL is that??? Anyway, just thought I’d share. Babies are awesome.

16 | Danielle

March 1st, 2010 at 9:08 am


I agree with the comments that taking signing classes is not mandatory, you certainly can learn signs from the plethora of resources out there (books, internet, Signing Time DVDs, etc). This is how I learned how to sign with my daughter. However, I now wish that I had taken a class with her instead of flying solo.

I had so many questions along the way that would have been so easily answered by an instructor (ex. “my daughter is making the same signs for 4 different things, what do I do?” or “I think my daughter is confused about the difference between hungry and eat, how can I clarify it for her?”)

Also, having a weekly class to attend really does keep you motivated to keep signing. Like Andrea said, she had the intention of signing with her daughter, and then forgot. If you’re part of a class, you will be much more likely to actually be consistent with working signing into your everyday life.

The instructor will also be able to provide you with really helpful signing tips (which signs to start with, what to look for, how long it will take, etc) and fun activities to engage your child and make signing fun.

Sometimes our children get a little tired of looking at and listening to Mom (or Dad), and having signs coming from a new face (whether it be the instructor’s or the other parents’) is just what they need to pay attention long enough to absorb the information.

If you’re going to take a “Mommy and Me” class anyway, why not have it be a class where you will have fun, sing songs, play with toys, meet new friends, AND learn a tremendously valuable life skill (a new language!) that will enable you to communicate with your child more than a year before they can talk?

I’m a little biased though, I am the instructor who teaches the Signing Time classes in Ottawa and I believe the classes are priceless and can’t be replaced by a book and a website. :)

17 | spydergrrl

March 1st, 2010 at 12:18 pm


I found sign language really helpful in my son’s pre-language days. Many moons ago when the Dude was a baby, I taught him a few signs and though he didn’t use them himself, he quickly learned what they meant and reacted to them. For example, we used eat, drink, change (diaper) and he would nod or shake his head to respond.

I used the same URL Miche posted above. The animated GIFs made it so easy to learn the signs and the dictionary setup allowed me to scan through the list and pick a few words I wanted to learn. It wasn’t imperative to me that I know a whole vocabulary, just enough to help him interact with me a bit more clearly.

I think the visual stimulus provided something he could associate to a result (sign for “drink” = she’s gonna give me a bottle if I nod). I think it should be included in the materials they provide at the hospital or in the feeding chart. Such a useful and fun way to interact with pre-speech kids!

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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