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Pros and Cons of Baby Sign Language

I have been producing content on the Internet for about seven years all while being a stay-at-home mom to two wonderful kids.

Teaching your baby sign language has become popular in recent times as have "Baby Einstein" videos, and listening to loads of classical music. However, it is controversial. Some feel there are a lot of negative aspects to having a baby who uses sign and others think that it offers a lot to parents and babies alike. So, what's the truth? What are the pros and cons?

How It Works

Many people (even those who work with baby sign language) don't really know how it all works. What you are actually doing is teaching a signed code to your child. You show them words using signs and eventually they will learn them. There are a wide range of words that are often used. A few things to understand are:

  1. The baby doesn't always sign the word the way it should be.
  2. Signs have to be kept simple in order for the baby to sign them.
  3. The parents need to be very consistent and use the words ALL THE TIME!
  4. It takes a lot of signing before the baby gets it.
  5. This isn't really making your baby bilingual. Even if they continue to learn hundreds of signs over the next several years, they still won't be speaking American Sign Language (which has a completely different grammar structure from English).

As long as parents understand these five aspects of baby sign language then there are a lot of benefits and a few cons to baby sign language.

Baby's First Word

Everyone is proud when their baby says their first word. It is no different for deaf parents. A friend of mine was excited to tell me that her son "spoke" his first word at four weeks old. It was then that he mastered the sign for milk and could ask his parents for milk whenever he desired. Well, some said she exaggerated and others claimed it just couldn't be. We worked hard with our son and the sign "milk". He was using it by six weeks old. So, it is true that communication with young ones can happen a lot earlier than many people think if only they had the physical ability to communicate.

Pros of Baby Sign Language

Some want proof that there are benefits to baby sign language. They want to know that it is really worth it. There is a lot of evidence in favor of baby sign language. Here are just a few pros that are easy to understand, especially if you have ever dealt with a young child before.

  • Eliminate Frustration. Babies and toddlers often throw fits, cry, and fuss out of frustration. It isn't that they don't know what they want, but usually that they can't communicate what they want. A lot of frustration is eliminated with baby sign. Your young child begins to have the ability to communicate their needs, wants, and even feelings to you in a way that you can understand. It also eliminates frustration on your part as you can skip out on the "What do you want game". "This, this, or this?" Skip it and find out what your child really wants.
  • Promotes language skills. Your baby has the ability to start understanding language and how it works before they actually have the physical ability to say what they are thinking. Sign language promotes this development by giving the baby/toddler something to work with and a way to practice language.
  • Develops Understanding of emotions. When you can start to identify what you need, want, and how you are feeling you have come a long way. This is something that allows toddlers to work on identifying emotions before their peers.
  • Creates feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. We have all seen when a baby or toddler is proud of themselves. This is something that happens a lot when a child is learning new words and new signs.

By far the ability to communicate early is the best thing baby sign language offers both a baby and a parent. It works toward eliminating frustration and even guesswork. This makes it easier to work with your child and to have a happy and healthy relationship with them.

Disadvantages of Baby Sign Language

While teaching baby sign language is a great thing to do, it isn't without at least a few cons. Some of these matter more to some people then others, but they are things to consider.

  • Consistency. In order for your child to learn a new sign you are going to have to use it regularly. This means using the vocal word and the sign word together at least most of the time. It can be hard to remember to do it, especially if you are only available part time at home.
  • Time. It takes a lot of time to teach sign language, but once your child has signs down it also takes time to watch them. This can means stopping a busy schedule to find out what your child is saying. Sometimes we have to do that anyway and when our child is throwing a fit or in need of something it is great to have sign language there as a way to communicate, but if there isn't a need for it, it can be hard to make time for it.
  • Frustration. It is true that sign language eliminates a lot of frustration at home. After all, the baby or young child can communicate his needs, wants, and feelings. But there will be times when he is in situations where people around him don't understand. This can lead to a lot of confusion and a lot of frustration (both for the child and the person he or she is trying to communicate with). Here are two stories to show what can happen.

The first is with a young boy who was in foster care and dealing with delayed speech. His caretakers taught him a number of signs and he used them often to communicate even though he was still mostly non-verbal. He was in the nursery and given a snack by a very talkative three year old. Amy was very upset that Damien hadn't said thank you for his snack. Damien had indeed thanked her, but he did it in sign. He continued to repeat the sign as she got very frustrated that he hadn't thanked her. In the end, it was a lot of work to calm both young children down. Amy was mad that Damien hadn't said thank you and Damien was hurt and confused because she didn't understand him.

The second situation was with out son who tried to share a few of his needs at a young age with his aunts and uncles. They didn't understand and it made him frustrated, angry, and he refused to use sings for several weeks afterwards.

Both of these situations can be hard to deal with. If you never come in contact with others who might not understand it wouldn't be a problem. But the fact is, most of us will come in contact with these situations and at least need to be aware that they can cause issues.

All in All

Baby sign language has a lot to offer, but at the same time takes a lot of work. If you have the time, patience, and discipline needed it can be a wonderful tool for you and your child. It can also give them something to share with others as they get older (and they will share it with others as they get into their preschool years). It can be fun to learn with your child and to watch them grow, usually with great excitement, in their skills. It will take work. It will take patience. And if you want to continue it on, it will take more patience.

Myth Busters

  1. Teaching a baby sign language will delay speech. For a long time this was the biggest argument against teaching hearing children signs. However, research (and experience) has shown that babies who learn sign usually speak sooner then their peers. It can also be used to help get a non-verbal child into communicating. Both of these are true because the child likes communicating, loves being understood, and knows that it works well with the signs. After they start verbalizing they will learn that it works even better with speech!
  2. Young babies can't learn sign language. Many people believed that it wasn't possible to teach young children signs. After all, how does a baby who is only six or eight months communicate effectively? Well, the truth is that babies, even very young babies can make very simple signs. Most advocates of baby sign language suggest starting at about four to six months of age. However, you can start earlier (your child is more likely to take longer to start signing but is more likely to pick up new words faster) or even later (it's never to late to start learning sign language with your child).
  3. If you continue learning signs past age three your child will know American Sign Language. This one bugs me, but only because I really like knowing everything I can about something before pursuing it. American Sign Language is more then just the hand shapes and the signs. If your baby learns hundreds of signs and can put them into sentences that sound like English then he or she is signing a code (a specific language in signs verses an new language all of its own), in this case Signed English (if he or she skips articles and minor words) or Signing Exact English (if every word in the sentence is signed and tenses are changed). While this is great, it isn't a second language. If you want him or her to learn American Sign Language then they will have to learn different grammar at some point. ASL is based on French and has grammar rules all of its own and nothing like English.
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There are lots of resources out there and lots of reasons to sign with your baby. Just be aware of the few cons that can come up and have fun with it. Take it slow and enjoy time with your baby (that is much more important then getting your baby to sign!). Baby and toddler sign language should be fun for both of you!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


robin7013 from India on February 08, 2015:

I have seen babies are the keen observers.

philipandrews188 on May 18, 2011:

Thanks for sharing.

aidenofthetower (author) on November 11, 2010:

I just thought I would add this comment as a "mini" update.

I learned a lot about sign language long before I became a mom. I actually started learning in the fifth grade when a deaf girl joined our class. I can still manage a decent signed English, though I am very rusty and I know my way around ASL a bit. I am not very fast, but can manage communicating with those who use ASL verses signed English.

I worked with my son on baby sign language awhile and he could sign milk very early. However, we didn't really take that everywhere I had wanted to. I just let it go somewhere among moving, writing, and so on. He's four now and is having loads of fun learning new signs with his sister who is almost 18 months. I started working with her a few months ago and her vocabulary has increased (both with spoken words and signs) tremendously.

aidenofthetower (author) on May 14, 2009:


Parenting certainly takes consistency and time. Talking with other mom's who have taught their babies at least some signs, the biggest reasons parents stop doing it after their babies start talking is that it is time consuming. While this can work for many families, it is also nice when parents continue on and work to increase their child's vocabulary.

Elizabeth on May 13, 2009:

You have a lot of great information in your article, however I have to disagree with the "Time" con.

It doesn't require any extra time out of your day to teach your baby to sign. It is in fact very natural for babies to sign. If you practice some signs like "eat" and "drink" during mealtime or "book" during story time.... it flows very easily with any family routine.

Not being able to communicate with others is a good reason to get your daycare center and family in the loop with the signs your baby knows.

Also, I think everything about parenting a baby takes consistency, that's just how babies learn.

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