Teaching Sign Language to Toddlers

by | Jun 9, 2012 | Uncategorized

The proven benefits of teaching your baby sign language. Hint: It isn’t about boosting IQ, but enhancing Emotional IQ, bonding, communication, language, and reducing frustrations and how to communicate with your little one. 

Last year I was asked by WE TV Channel to help with a “make-over” for two-year old sextuplets on their show Raising Sextuplets. The six little ones were all active and all nonverbal. And because they couldn’t verbalize their frustrations they had become six little chompers – biting and hitting to try to get their needs across. Can you imagine?

Before I visited the set I put in a call to Linda Acredolo, one of the world’s best child development experts and researchers- and one “all around great woman.” Linda and I chatted about the sextuplets and she confirmed my plan. I would go and teach these toddlers two simple hand gestures: “Stop” (for when they wanted to alert that sibling to backoff and not chomp) and “Gentle” (to use in asking their sibling to be kinder or to thank their brother or sister for not chomping).

Two hours later (really!) not only were the sextuplets biting less and signing to one another, but their parents and producers were signing as well.

Linda Acredolo’s research was confirmed. It works! And I love passing on her work to parents.

Today’s  post is once again featuring evidence-based parenting solutions but features the slightly younger set. It’s all about how to teach your baby sign language. And the best news is you have everything to get started. No fancy equipment, no books or no program is needed is needed. Just use your instinct and follow Linda Arcedolo’s and Susan Goodwyn’s studies. In doing so, you’ll boost your child’s language development, emotional intelligence, and early communication skills as well as strengthen that glorious bond with your little one.

(By the way, I’ve also used sign language with special needs children, especially those who have been traumatized and have difficulty verbalizing their feelings. They sign their feelings! It’s heart-thumping stuff.)


Where the Research on Sign Language All Began

So how did all these fabulous new findings begin? It all started when Linda Acredolo was at the doctor’s office and her year-old daughter, Kate, spotted an aquarium. The toddler ran to the tank and excitedly began blowing gestures with her mouth as if she were blowing out candles. She was clearly trying to tell mom about the fish – but why would she do so with blowing gestures her mom wondered?  That night it dawned on Linda that she and her daughter took turns at bedtime blowing a mobile decorated with fish designs that was hanging over Kate’s crib.

Linda realized that Kate was also using other gestures like sniffing to indicate the word “flower” and touching the index fingers of both of her hands to signify the word “spider” from the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” song they sang together.

Kate was creating gestures as a way to “talk” to her mom. Linda talked to other moms, who shared they had similar experiences with their babies. And that was the beginning of a decade of fascinating new research in baby development.

Katie’s mom, Linda Acredolo, just happened to be professor of psychology at the University of California, at Davis. Linda and her colleague, Susan Goodwyn, at California State University at Stanislaus, began teaching baby signs to 140 families with eleven-month old babies.

Next the two researchers undertook a long-term study funded by National Institutes of Health and Human Development to test the effective of teaching babies to sign before they can talk. Would signing help or hurt their language development?

The results of over a decade of research are surprising: those babies who signed at eleven months tested eleven months ahead of other babies understood more words, had larger vocabularies by age three years. At eight years of age, signing babies scored an average of twelve points higher in intelligence tests than their non-signing peers. In fact, a number of other benefits were found.

Proven Benefits of Teaching Toddlers Sign Language 

  • Develop an emotional awareness and label his feelings
  • Communicate with their parents months before most babies otherwise can do so verbally
  • Reduces his tears, tantrums and frustrations because baby can express himself
  • Strengthens their attachment with their parents
  • Develop language skills and speak sooner.

A decade of research shows that signing helps all babies—not just those showing language delays. What’s more, signing with nonverbal babies increases their vocabulary and language skills and helps infants learn how to talk faster.

Acredolo and Goodwyn sum up their results by saying : “We found only positive effective on the Baby Sign babies, who outperformed the other babies in comparison after comparison.” Signing “not only leads to better communication; it also speeds up the process of learning to talk, stimulates intellectual development, enhances self-esteem, and strengthens the bond between parents and infant.

Do keep the perspective though, the key value to signing is not about trying to boost your infant’s IQ score. This is all about bonding, connecting, nurturing emotional intelligence, reducing frustrations, and helping your little one communicate with you.

How to Communicate With Your Baby Using Signs

Watch  for “sign readiness”

“Readiness” always varies for each baby. Your baby may be ready for baby signs usually around nine to ten months but may start as early as around seven to eight months. Look for your baby’s cues: she may start pointing or showing an interest in “talking” about people and things She may also bring you toys or objects as if she’s asking for their name.

Introduce a few easy signs

Waving “bye-bye”, putting his hand on his head for “hat” or nodding to indicate “yes” or “no” are simple beginning signs. He wants to be picked up: “Move your hands up in the air” for he wants to be picked up. Make sure the gestures are easy for your baby to copy. Introduce just one sign at a time, and repeat the same gesture until your baby seems to understand. That’s your signal he’s ready to start using signs on his own.

Follow your baby’s lead

Once baby is ready for his own signs, look for concrete things that interest your baby (like his toys, the household pet, food, and family members). Those are special things you’ll want to create special gestures for so your baby can “talk” about them.

Be patient

Don’t expect your baby to immediately copy your sign. In fact, he’ll understand the gesture long before he uses the sign, just like he’ll understand a word before he says the word. Learning the first sign always takes the longest, so keep repeating the sign patiently until he gets the connection. Do always use sign naturally as you “talk” with your baby.

Use the sign with the word

Suppose you’re teaching the sign “sleepy.” Be a bit of a drama queen and slightly exaggerate using the sign in your own talking: “Mommy is sleepy.” Then tilt your head toward your shoulders resting it on both hands placed together.  Doing so helps your baby sees how the sign is linked to the word. The more your baby sees the sign as you say the word, the sooner she will gets the connection between the two.

Praise baby’s efforts

One group of baby researchers believe that the way we respond to our baby’s gestures is the reason signing builds vocabulary so rapidly. Think about it: Your baby tries signing, and you get excited. “Light? That’s right! You want Mommy to see the light!”

You usually just automatically repeat the word matching the gesture a few times: “Birdie. You see a birdie! Ah, the birdie is going away!”

One reason babies acquire language at such a rapid rate is because we flood them with so many words, and encourage any little effort they make. So smile broadly, praise your little one lavishly when she attempts to sign, and always repeat the word that matches her sign (“light” or “birdie”). After all, repetition and encouragement is how your baby learns language.

Create signs for baby’s frustrations

A great benefit of signing is that it helps reduce your baby’s frustrations.He finally has a way to tell you he’s tired or scared or thirsty without resorting to tears or tantrums. So be on the alert your little one’s day-to-day special frustrations, and create gestures for those special issues.  Also consider using signs to talk to your baby about his feelings: “You look sad!” (While drawing a tear as if it’s running down your cheek). Or “Are you sleepy?” (Rest your head on your hands). Pointing out feelings is how you nurture your baby’s empathy and tune into not only his own feelings, but also those of others.

Use the sign with lots of examples

If you use the sign “hat” for baby’s baseball cap, make sure you also use the same sign for daddy’s hat, brother’s cap, and grandma’s rain bonnet. Your baby will then understand that sign for hat works for all hats, not just for his hat.

Stop signing when baby says the word

When you baby finally catches on to the sign and uses it fluently, it’s up to you whether you want to continue using the sign or stop. Either choice is fine. Suppose your little one makes the sign for “all gone” (hands out back and forth) – you don’t need to use the sign simultaneously – just simply say what he’s signing, “Is your drink all gone?”

Pass on signs to other adults

Who else in your baby’s world should know his new signing vocabulary? Let his baby-sitter, Grandma, big brother, or day care worker know your baby’s signs so they can communicate with your baby as well.

Five Easy Signs to Teach Your Baby

Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, authors of the wonderful book, Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, say these five words and signs are “surefire winners” as beginners to teach your baby:

  • Hat: Pat the top of you head with your hand open and your palm down
  • Bird: Flap one or both arms out to the side like a bird’s wing
  • Flower: Make a sniffing gestured with a wrinkled nose like you are smelling
  • Fish: Open and close your lips, in a smacking motion like a fish
  • More: Tap the index finger of one hand into the opposite palm

Once your baby uses these symbols for the words, just follow her lead and make up new gesters based on your child’s interests and needs such as blankey, doggie, bottle, hungry, sleepy.

Special thanks to Linda Acredolo for the delightful conversation! All the best with your incredible work!

Dr. Michele Borba

You can also follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba or on my blog Michele Borba’s Reality Check


J. Huttenlocher, W. Haight, A. Bryk, M. Seltzer & T. Lyons. “Early Vocabulary Growth: Relation to Language Input and Gender,” Developmental Psychology, 27, 236-248.

Reduces frustrations: L. Acredolo and S. Goodwyn, Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. N.Y.: Contemporary Books, 2002; can express emotions: J. Dunn, I. Bretherton, and P. Munn, “Conversations about Feeling States between Mothers and Their Young Children,” Developmental Psychology, 23, 1987, 132-39.

S. Goodwhy, L. Acredolo and C. Brown, “Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Lnaguage Development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 2000,  24- p. 81-103.

L. Acredolo and S. Goodwyn, Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. N.Y.: Contemporary Books, 2002, p. 5.

For more parenting tips and learning the latest in child development to help us raise happy, confident kids with strong character refer to my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also follow me on my blog MicheleBorba or on twitter @MicheleBorba.