Best Sign Language Symbols for Babies
Sign language can be taught and used with babies of all ages. Usually introduced as early as possible with only a select few symbols, baby signing can help strengthen the child-caregiver bond and decrease a child’s distress. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is run under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This organization is the largest biomedical research agency in the world. Studies funded by the NIH have revealed longitudinal evidence showing how children who sign develop more advanced verbal skills earlier than their non-signing peers. By 2 years of age, children who used sign language regularly were up to 3 months more advanced in their verbal expression than other children their same age. By age 8, these same children were shown to have up to 12 points higher on IQ tests.
Although babies aren’t typically able to use sign language until they master more complex motor skills, they are able to understand them when repeated regularly and consistently. You might start seeing your baby sign independently anywhere from 6-8 months old.
Some benefits of early sign language have been found in recent research: communication and attunement can be enriched, frustration in babies and toddlers can be decreased as they are better understood, and kids’ potentially increased confidence and self-esteem. All of these benefits lead to fewer tantrums, less stress for the baby and toddler, and feelings of success as a parent!
Here are a few of the most basic, simple signs that babies can start with. Used consistently and hand-in-hand with the adult’s spoken words, these gestures can open up a whole new world of language for you and your child.
Babies request nourishment within minutes of being born, and their natural method of communicating this need is crying. By introducing the “drink” symbol as one of baby’s first signs, baby is able to ask for food and communicate when he has had enough. An easy symbol, “drink” requires you to shape your hand as if it were holding a cup and make the movement of bringing that invisible cup up to your mouth.
No matter if baby is breastfed or bottlefed, the sign is often used because the baby frequently needs to eat in his first 9 months, so the sign is quickly associated with requesting milk or formula. Later, as baby grows older, it can be used to request water or juice.
Introduction of the “more” symbol allows baby to communicate if he has not had his fill of milk or formula. Fingertips of both hands are positioned horizontally and tapped together. “More” can also be used in a variety of contexts to reduce frustration in the older baby and young toddler: “more” music, “more” time in the bath, “more” park, etc.
The eating sign can be useful as one of the first symbols. Associated with a bottle or nursing, the eating sign can be taught by showing the baby the sign right before feeding him. Then, as the baby grows, becomes more independent, and begins solid foods, they will have already associated the “eat” sign with nourishment.
Much like holding a small cranberry with all your fingers and slowly bringing it to your lips to savor, simply gather the tips of your fingers and bring your hand to your mouth, tapping your fingers to your lips.
“Mom” is a frequent symbol used as this is typically the main caregiver in the early months. (If this is not the case, find the sign to indicate your main caregiver – grandfather, nanny, aunt – and introduce this early on as well.)
Formed by spreading your fingers apart and holding your hand up perpendicularly in front of your face, tap only your thumb on your chin.
With your hand in the exact same position as when you are signing the word “mom” (fingers spread apart with your hand held perpendicularly in front of your face), tap your thumb on your forehead. Most male signs (grandfather, uncle, brother, dad) use symbols that touch your forehead while most female signs (grandmother, aunt, sister, mom) use symbols touching your chin.
When baby’s belly is happily full or he has finished playing and is ready to move on to another activity, it may be useful to have a sign that communicates that baby’s finished. “All done” is physically easy for babies to master early on and comes in useful before bottles are thrown or tantrums begin.
Created by holding both hands up in front of you at either side of your face, fingers need to be spread and you pivot the wrists back and forth a few times as you say “all done”.
If there’s one action you’ll be repeating multiple times over the course of every single day, it’s changing your baby’s diaper. In that sense, as it is a necessary, often repeated activity, and one that baby can learn to gain independence from, the “diaper” sign could be useful as one of baby’s first. It is equally important and just as helpful to introduce early as “eat”, “more”, and “sleep”.
You will begin by placing both your hands on your hips. With your ring finger and pinky tucked into your hand, your middle and pointer pinch together to touch your thumb over and over.
A great sign to incorporate into teaching a bedtime routine, “sleep” allows for you to show your baby what’s happening next. As well, when baby eventually learns how to use this symbol independently, he can request sleep time if he is groggy and needing a nap. This can help when trying to communicate baby’s most basic needs and teaching them ownership of their body.
As you close your eyes, place either hand open palmed directly in front of your face. Fingers need to be slightly spread open. You will bring your fingers together as you swipe your hand down to your chin. This movement almost looks like sleep is taking over your body.
Beyond the first basic signs used early on which are usually associated with drinking milk, the “please” sign is a good way to start introducing manners. Again, this symbol is physically simple enough for baby to master in the earlier months and ensures a sort of respectful dance between baby and caregiver. It is the ultimate cause and effect. “Please” milk, or toy, or cuddles. And the baby receives requested milk, toy or cuddle.
Place either hand flat on your chest and slightly separate your fingers. Move your hand on your chest in a circular motion.
On the heels of learning “please”, “thank you” comes as a logical and respectful next step. After requested item has been given, encourage baby to sign “thank you”. This is an especially fun symbol to practice with the entire family at the dinner table. With older siblings and parents, use one of baby’s favorite food items and exaggerate the request and thanking the giver. Practice makes perfect! And it’s great to lead by example when teaching manners!
Place either hand flatly on your chin with your palm in the direction of your face. Lower your hand slowly until your palm is facing the sky.
This is a great sign for aiding communication and reducing tantrums. When asked if a baby wants food or a particular toy, teaching them to sign “yes” allows them freedom of choice. Some degree of perceived control drastically reduces the need for little ones to get frustrated or fall apart when misunderstood or not allowed to show as much independence as they’d like to.
Form “yes” by balling your hand into a fist as you hold one arm out to the side in the shape of an L, pointing towards the sky. Pivot your wrist up and down. Your fist will begin to nod yes.
This sign is particularly helpful (pun intended) when trying to decrease baby or toddler’s frustration and avoid a crisis. More useful introduced when the baby is around the year mark, this sign can be used for both helping others and needing help yourself, depending on which direction you move your hands.
To make the “help” sign, place one of your palms flat in front of you and facing the sky. Make a fist with your opposite hand and allow your thumb to escape, pointing towards the sky while this hand just sits on top of your open palm. When wanting to communicate that you will help someone, move both hands in this position towards the person you wish to help. If you need help from someone, pull both hands in this position towards your chest.
This is a lovely sign to learn and use as you bond with your baby over shared interests. The effects of reading to your child has been extensively researched. What we’ve learned in the past is that regularly reading aloud to your baby helps them develop a rich vocabulary and deepens the baby-parent bond. Most recent brain research shows that reading to your child actually stimulates the parts of the brain which are responsible for visual imagery and understanding language. Bonus payoff? Just holding and cuddling with your baby while you’re reading releases endorphins in both child and parent. A practice you’ll want to cultivate and no doubt cherish, reading is an activity that the baby can learn to request.
By bringing your hands together in the shape of a closed book, release both palms open as if you were opening a book. Baby can begin to request this special reading time as he learns which activities he enjoys.
One activity that allows for plenty of baby-parent bonding is bath time! It is ritualistic, as bath usually occurs at roughly the same time and in the same sequence every day. It is also usually closely related to baby’s bedtime routine. In such a way, bath is typically a calming and comforting time for baby.
You can sign “bath” to let your baby know what’s coming up next, and baby can learn to sign this as well to request this comforting and restorative activity.
By placing both hands in fists up to your chest level, you rub up and down from shoulder height to roughly mid-chest level. You literally look like you’re bathing yourself. Rub-a-dub-dub – Easy for baby to learn and do!