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Teaching Sign Language to Babies and Toddlers: Myths, Truths, and Benefits

Cholee has worked in childcare for over ten years and has taken several early childhood development classes.

Baby sign language has been around for decades; however, it has just recently started to become more popular. Teaching sign language to infants and toddlers has been largely controversial and debated among professionals and parents as to whether it is actually beneficial to the child.

We will discuss:

  • five myths about teaching sign language to babies,
  • tips to get you started, and
  • the benefits and advantages young children will obtain from learning and using sign language on a regular and daily basis.

How Does Sign Language Work?

Babies understand language long before they have developed the ability to use it. Most infants and toddlers can wave or point well before they can say "bye bye" or "what is that?". Providing them with signs allows them to communicate the language they understand, but cannot yet speak.

Babies love to mimic and learn best through observation. They are naturally prone to using gestures so it only makes sense to provide them with signs that have meaning, so they can communicate to us in a way that we can understand. Although babies love to mimic, it is important to note that not all babies will be interested in signing. I know several families where some of their children took to signing and their other children showed no interest. Like anything, it will take some trial and error to see if your children will engage in this behavior or not.

Sign language is a great way to help infants and toddlers communicate and grasp the world around them. As parents and providers, it is important for us to communicate and narrate every day activities to the little ones in our care. Narrating everything that is going on around them allows children to better interpret the world around them. If we are already doing this, adding signs can become second nature. I started with the easy signs that I could easily incorporate into my everyday conversations like please, thank you, and more.

Many organizations in the U.S. and other countries now run baby signing classes for parents and children. Early childhood and day care centers are also implementing sign language into their curriculum, because of the advantages of baby sign language.

As a stay at home mom, I have the privilege of not only taking care of, but teaching my son sign language. He is 9.5 months old and has an extensive vocabulary. He can say 10 words/phrases and sign two words, only one of which he can actually say. I started signing the word "more" when my son was around six months. As a result, it was one of the first words he could say at around seven months. I didn't sign the word daily, so it took him a while, but I am so excited for what is to come!

Advantages/Benefits to Sign Language:

  • Boosts brain development (possible higher I.Q. of up to 12 points for children who learned and used baby sign language on a daily basis)
  • Boosts communication, self-esteem, and confidence
  • Earlier understanding of language (less frustrations and tantrums)
  • Early reading (leads to larger reading and speaking vocabulary)
  • Better grades in school
  • Above average ability to learn and speak a 2nd language
  • Closer parental bond
teaching-infants-and-toddlers-sign-language

How to Start Sign Language:

You can start teaching sign language to your infant anywhere between 6 and 8 months of age. Babies are like sponges and soak up everything. The younger you start teaching your infants and toddlers the quicker they can learn and understand not only language, but signs and what those signs mean.

Start signing by simply adding them to every day words you use. For example, every time you get milk, a bottle, or cup, for your child say "milk", "bottle", or "cup" and sign the word. You will be amazed at how fast an infant or toddler can make the connection between the sign and the actual object.

Signing every day words and phrases allows a way for your baby to learn how to communicate with you. Sign language is not necessarily a way for you to communicate to your child, but rather a way for them to communicate with you. Remember the more consistent you are the faster your infant or toddler will pick it up.

Tips:

  1. Start with only 2-4 easy signs (objects used daily or family words)
  2. Repeat daily and often
  3. Add signs only when child has a grasp of the first set.
  4. If your infant or toddler makes up a sign, use that sign (forcing a child to change a sign can cause confusion or frustration)
  5. Make it fun
  6. Don't give up (it won't happen over night)
My 8 month old's version of the sign "more"

My 8 month old's version of the sign "more"

15 Signs to Start With:

Family:

  • Mom/Dad
  • Cat/Dog

Food:

  • Milk
  • Eat
  • More
  • Done

Practical:

  • Nap
  • Blanket
  • Bath
  • Change/Diaper
  • Help
  • Play

Five Myths About Baby Sign Language:

Myth 1: Sign language delays speech development. This is a common negative connotation when discussing baby sign language. It was a belief that teaching sign language to young children would actually hinder their speech, because they would not need to talk to communicate.

Truth: Using sign language actually introduces more speech as well as repetition. When we are constantly narrating and using signs, it is easier for infants and toddlers to mimic our words and signs and interpret them into language. Recent studies have actually shown that sign language accelerates babies oral communication.

Myth 2: Sign language is a fad. Many believe that baby sign language is a new concept, however it has actually been around for decades.

Truth: Many speech therapists have been using and recommending baby sign language for years. It has also been used in many cultures around the world as a way to increase communication.

Myth 3: Not endorsed by educators. Some do not want to take the time to learn sign language in order to teach an infant or toddler

Truth: Early educators are now implementing sign language into their curriculum. Sign language provides cognitive and developmental benefits and those teachers with a degree in language are highly recommending adding sign language to early learning education. Sign language is also a great way to help bridge the lapse between two languages. I frequently used sign language in my toddler classrooms and one of my favorite things was hearing the parents tell me how their children would use the same signs at home.

Myth 4: Too much time and effort. It is believed that it takes a long time and hard work to teach an infant sign language. Or that it takes special set aside time to "practice" sign language.

Fact: Sign language can be incorporated into daily routines and does not need to be a lot of work. It's as simple as signing every day words while doing the activities. I never set special time aside to teach my children sigh language, and my son picked up on sign language very quickly. Our daughter learned simply from watching my son and I communicate through signs. After the first child sign language becomes second nature and the other children will natural pick it up if they want to use it.

Myth 5: Sign language is pushing a child too hard and will only confuse them. Many believe that sign language is too abstract for an infant to understand and that we are only setting them up for failure. It is believed that a child doesn't understand signs or language so to use them doesn't pay off.

Truth: Babies have a natural inclination to gesture and will make wide motions with their hands and arms. By teaching sign language we are associating gestures with language and giving those gestures a meaning and at the same time giving our children a means to communicate.

Signing "eat"

Signing "eat"

Baby sign language may just be starting to become popular, however it has been used by many for over a 100 years. Sign language is a great way to open the lines of communication between you and your little one as well as encourage learning and language development.

Sign language is not only a great learning tool, but it is a wonderful way to bond with your child. The time spent teaching, playing, and interacting with your child is something that will benefit not only your little one, but you as well.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: My son is 2 1/2 and has started learning sign language as part of an early learning intervention. However, he has now stopped using any of the words he already was speaking and does not try to say any new words. So how can you say that it helps a child with their speech when it only seems to be hurting my child? I've read information on many sites that have researched the matter, and there is no evidence that it actually helps boost development or that it works.

Answer: I do not know what sites you have been reading on, but I know that sign language is going to be different for every child. There is no one size fits all when it comes to sign language. In no way is it going to harm him to learn it.

At 2.5 I don't see any issues with what you are describing. It is not uncommon for children who need early intervention to stop speaking and use sign language instead. As long as your child is communicating (even if it's only with signs) that is a good thing. If he has trouble with certain sounds or enunciating, sign language is likely helping him communicate more efficiently which could explain why he has stopped speaking. Those that need speech or other early interventions tend to revert back to gestures and sign language rather than words, because it is easier and less frustrating for them to communicate that way. If your son understands what you are saying and can follow simple directions/commands I would not be worried. He is still learning and absorbing the information you are giving him; he is simply communicating it back to you in a different way. I know several children who have stopped talking for brief periods, and are now very talkative.

My daughter, for example, uses a lot of sign language still, and she is almost three. She is very smart, but has a tendency to babble, and likes to use signs and gestures to talk. I am not worried, one because I understand that most professionals believe young children should be able to speak more words than the average two year old can actually communicate, and two because I know my daughter understands what I am saying to her. Every child learns at their own pace and from what little you have told me, I am not worried about your son. Give the sign language time, and I think you will find it is actually helping him, it just might be in a different way than you were expecting.

Question: Why are parents not given an option at daycares to NOT have sign language taught to their children?

Answer: Sign language is not a lesson that has its own time slot. It would be impossible to not teach just one child sign language. To not teach them any sign language the child would miss out on "circle" (learning) time, and possibly other centers. Not to mention, lunch is another time where sign language could be used frequently. This means the child would have to sit alone at lunch (which is not possible).

From my experience sign language is used throughout the day and was never required by any child. Rather, it's an additional form of language for those who may not speak or may have a hard time communicating their wants/needs. It is an asset to learn, even if it is just simple words like more, please, thank you, etc. The only way to not teach a child is to remove sign language entirely from the classroom, which could do more harm than good. Especially if there are special needs or bilingual children in the classroom.

I honestly do not know why you would not want your child to learn at least a little bit of sign language. It is no different than learning a second language. It allows a child to communicate with an adult or another person, when it may not have been possible or easy before.

Question: How do you know your truths for the myths are correct? What research did you do to say these things as facts?

Answer: Most of the "facts" do not actually require research. With the exception of the first myth, the last four are truths that I've come to know with my experience using and teaching sign language, and I did not research them.

Myths 2 through 5 are not research-based, and in my honest opinion do not need to be researched to be accurate. It is not hard to see that signs and gestures have been used for ages before sign language became integrated into most daycare and early childhood education classrooms. I have also worked in many different types of childcare centres, and every single one of them used sign language in some form or another. It did not require any extra work on our part, and the children all picked up on the signs rather quickly because signs were used constantly and consistently throughout the day. Furthermore, I have never experienced a child have speech delays due to learning sign language. However, I did do some research because I know that is a highly debated stance and the research seemed to be evenly split at the time I wrote this article. Although, most research that I could find was in favour of sign language and claimed it did not hinder language/speech development.

For myth one I looked through medical and educational studies involving sign language. Like I said before the results were mixed, but for the most part were in favour of sign language.

© 2014 Cholee Clay

Comments

Bella Allred on November 22, 2017:

I've used sign language when working with children in special education and toddlers and found it to be a very helpful and easy form of communication. Thanks so much for sharing!

Cholee Clay (author) from Wisconsin on August 01, 2017:

Joanna I love that you saw a kindergarten teacher using sign language! I've never seen a teacher in primary school sign or even teach a foreign language. Actually most of the daycare providers around my area do not use sign language either.

Sign language I think is one of the easiest languages to teach, because you can learn it without actually realizing you are being taught. My mom is a daycare provider and actually does the same thing with teaching colors. She'll sign as she says them, and the children usually follow along.

Joanna Blackburn from Texas on August 01, 2017:

I have been using sign language in my classes for the last ten years and the children that have gone through my class continue to use sign language. I teach a little bit different, but the kids learn it without realizing they are learning it. When I was in college I had to observe a kindergarten class. The teacher of this class used sign language through out the day, every day. As she spoke, she would sign different words and they kids did the same thing. This is where I got the idea of using sign language in my classroom of two year olds.

Doris H. Dancy from Yorktown, Virginia on June 20, 2014:

While I have never tried this method, everything I've learned here is fascinating, thought provoking, and extremely useful. What a wonderful article to open up doors for so many. Thank you.

KJhusak on March 31, 2014:

This is fantastic! Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. My daughter went to daycare for a day and came home signing please! A year later and she is still doing it. (:

Allyson Cardis from Gloucestershire, England on March 31, 2014:

Baby sign is well underway in this country too. I have a grandson now who I look after and simple signs not only come quite naturally, but helped us both to make the most of our time together and have fun. Keep up the good work.

Cholee Clay (author) from Wisconsin on March 26, 2014:

Outbound Dan-- It's amazing how fast young ones pick up on everything. Made up signs are the best, I know little boy who does the same thing.

Sign language has definitely helped our son communicate better too. So much easier to understand than his whining. Thanks for letting me know about the video, I think I fixed it :)

Dan Human from Niagara Falls, NY on March 26, 2014:

I started using baby sign language with my son and at 18 months now, he still uses many of the signs. I find it funny when he invents signs for himself. We can communicate rather well (usually) between signs and the few words he does use.

Oh just so you know, when I click on your video it is listed as "private."

Well done - a skill every parent should learn.