Sign language for the pre-verbal

RJ used sign language to “talk” to his pre-verbal kids (and let them reply):

Start learning and using some ASL (American Sign Language.) Children have the ability to grasp language before they have the muscle control or brain development to speak, and teaching them some signs (like milk, potty, more, food, hot) will allow them to communicate their needs, cutting down on frustration and the ensuing tantrum. We just use “The Joy of Signing” to look up anything we think our daughter might want to express and start using the sign ourselves whenever the topic comes up. I’ve read that children tend to start using sign around 8 months or later, so just keep using one or two signs until they start to reciprocate, then you can expand from there.

It’s also cool to be able to communicate non-verbally with your children in public, or from a distance without shouting, letting you both conspire to slip away for some nursing or a potty break without broadcasting your plans to the room!

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  1. Jill says

    Both my children started to communicate with sign at about 10 months. My son’s first sign (we’d been trying to teach Eat for two months) was I Love You! I had a year of communication before they became good speakers. Each learned about 20 signs to blend with their gestures and words. They also began to invent their own signs and compound words. Eat, Drink and More are good first signs, but include Pain, Stop, Please, Thank You, Potty/Diaper, I Love You and others that you’ll enjoy them knowing for the next several years. Pain is extremely useful (index fingers touch over the painful spot on their body). Plus, there’s nothing like signing Thank You to your child from across the room and then having Great Aunt Mathilda praise your child for using good manners! For signs, you can invest in a book on Baby Sign, or just Google SIGN LANGUAGE under images.

  2. says

    this is a great tip. We’ve used this with both our kids to great results. They can tell us whats on their mind, but I also think another great advantage is the ‘across the room’ point. Plus its fun to see a little kid ‘talk’ to you before they can even speak.

  3. says

    We taught my daughter (now 3 1/2) sign language (I think we used BABY SIGN, but be wary: there’s a good one and a bad one, and I forget which was which).

    It worked exceptionally well. The reason I did it was a friend of ours in Maine once asked her 9 month old daughter whether she wanted milk (hand squeezing an utter) or water (hand with three fingers out touching the mouth). I was blown away.

    This was the best communication skill we ever taught my daughter, and we’ll teach the new kid, once he lets go of the bomb bay doors and comes out.

  4. Chuk says

    We’re doing this with our six month old now — she might have done the milk sign once or twice so far. We did it with great success with our now five year old daughter…a couple of the signs even persisted well past age two, even though she’d long been talking by then. We only used about a half a dozen signs with our older daughter, but we’re using more with the new baby.

  5. Scott Severtson says

    We did this with my oldest; by the time she started talking, she was stringing several signs together to form complete thoughts. Since, she’s forgotten most of the signs, except for “thank you” and “potty”, which still come in handy.

    I regret not continuing with my second; she’s in her “terrible twos”, which the oldest seemed to skip right over. Her frustration is palpable as she searches for the right words.

    My third is getting some sign instruction, but with two older sisters, it’s difficult to find those quiet, teachable moments.

    One other thing; numerous studies have shown the cognative advantages of being exposed to multiple languages during early childhood. Another study I read (can’t find it now, although it may be referenced at showed that ASL as a second (first?) language produced similar results. Makes your life easier and (in theory) makes your child smarter!

  6. says

    We’ve done this with our 9 month old via the UK ‘babysigners’ (uses British sign language not ASL). Its great, not only to establish non-verbal communication with our child but it also helped us pick up her own signs and prompts so we can read what she is doing/thinking.

  7. No Nym says

    There is also a great book, _Baby Signs_ by Linda Acredolo (a UC Davis psychologist who researches development of language), that teaches kid-oriented signs. Highly recommended. Our daughter still uses some when making exclamations, at age 3.

  8. says

    I originally started learning signs to teach my daughter from Joseph Garcia’s Signing with Your Baby and one of the Baby Signs books (not sure if it was the good one or the bad one!), but what came in handier for me were little board books from the library with signs on a particular theme, like “pets” and “food”. Weird.

  9. says

    We have two kids, one who is in kindergarten and one 11 mo. We taught the older one a few words of baby sign, and now he’s helping us teach the younger one.

    One sign not in the standard vocabulary but that has spread throughout my familiar is the “delicious” sign. Throw your hands in the air, wiggle your fingers, say “dee-licious!”, and then bring your hands down to your sides. It never fails to get a burst of laughter at mealtime.

  10. Mieke says

    I wish I had figured this out earlier. An ASL-fluent friend mentioned the idea of baby-signing to me about 2 years too late. I just hadn’t even thought of it. Next time :)

  11. says

    Our son, just 3 and with a speech delay, uses sign language to great effect. We started learning when his speech therapist recommended it a few months ago, and he took to it immediately. It’s made a huge difference to our daily interactions– his comprehension has always been just fine, but he wasn’t always able to make himself understood. Now he can, and it’s a whole new world. Before therapy, everyone (solicited and unsolicited) told us NOT to introduce signs…that it would be a crutch…that we just needed to be more patient. Bah! He can now sign words that are difficult for him to say, and is SO thrilled that we can understand him. His speech is improving weekly, as well- and you gotta love that!

  12. says

    We have taught our son some gestures before he could use words, and I agree that it is a very useful technique. I’d suggest that people don’t get hung up in how many gestures their child learns. We found that having a few key ones — more, all done, please — were key to 90% of his needs.

    By the way, I studied the linguistics of ASL back in college. The argument that gesture becomes a “crutch” that may hurt language development is a common one, but it is indeed false. Communication begets communication, no matter what mode it is in.

    However, a small pet peeve of mine is calling what we are teaching our children “ASL”. American Sign Language is a full-fledged language, with its own grammar and syntax. To be accurate, what we are doing is teaching them some gestures that are simplified versions of ASL signs.

  13. says

    I have been teaching my son to sign specific “ASL” words since he was about 3 or 4 months old. He started to sign mommy and daddy when he was 6 months old.

    I used a book of songs, Pick Me Up (can be found on Amazon), which which was a great way for me to remember certain signs to communicate during the pre-language period. The only problem I found with this book was that it sometimes “watered down” the signs to make it easier for babies to do them.

    In researching better signing books, I came across a great web site that provides video of ASL words so you can make sure you are signing them correctly. It is located at the following address:

    Happy Signing Everyone!

  14. says

    We have two kids, one who is in kindergarten and one 11 mo. We taught the older one a few words of baby sign, and now he’s helping us teach the younger one.

    One sign not in the standard vocabulary but that has spread throughout my familiar is the “delicious” sign. Throw your hands in the air, wiggle your fingers, say “dee-licious!”, and then bring your hands down to your sides. It never fails to get a burst of laughter at mealtime.

  15. george says

    We used Joseph Garcia’s “Sign with your baby” ( for our first kid. It was decent and she learned the basics, “all done” “more” “milk” etc.

    Recently, we checked out Signing Time( at our library. These videos are very well produced and fun to watch. They sign along with songs and show numerous kids doing the signs. I like this second set of videos quite a bit more. It even made it easier for me to learn.

  16. says

    We have been teaching our 11- month old son signing for the past 3 months and I have found 2 great DVD’s to help. Baby Einstein’s Baby Wordsworth and Talking Hands. They are paced nicely and have helped us both to learn. We don’t seem to be having much luck however. Our son has done everything early(walked at 9 months, etc.) so he tries to talk instead of using the signs. Or laughs at us uncontrollably Any suggestions?

  17. says

    Our son’s speech therapist told us at the beginning that if we were going to start signing, we needed to do it ALL the time. We also needed to say the word in conjunction with the sign ALL the time. Duncan rolled his eyes or laughed at the beginning, too, but he started signing very quickly when he realized that we were serious about it and that we could understand him much better when he did.

  18. says

    My wife & I are working towards adopting a Russian child (hopefully a <2 yr-old boy) thru CHI.

    I'm nervous about the language gap that's bound to exist even if only briefly. With that in mind, do you think learning some of these basic ASL words or phrases would help a child who's already verbally-communicative (just not in English)? And, at up to 2 years old, is this a tad too far past the optimal starting point to teach signing?