Ask the Expert: What are the Benefits of Using Baby Sign Language?

Baby Sign Language can help your children with early communicationFor over 25 years the Baby Signs® Program has helped caregivers teach babies to “talk” before they can talk with a variety of books, videos, and songs. If you have ever considered starting baby sign language with your little one, you will want to read this interview with one of the program founders, Dr. Linda Acredolo.

Several months ago, I noticed my littlest became increasingly frustrated with his inability to communicate. This was new parenting territory for me, as his older brother began to speak much earlier and seemed to express his needs with ease. After several emotional meltdowns, I decided to look into baby sign language. I was worried that my son might be too old to begin the process at 15-months, yet since diving in, I’ve been absolutely blown away by just how much his verbal and non-verbal communication has improved.

For us, we noticed that our son did not actually use the signs, but began to say the words we were using within a week or two of practicing. Just this past week he signed “more” for the first time (although it has been a lesson for nearly two months) and has been using the gesture daily since.

There are benefits beyond improved communication, however. Here’s what Dr. Acredolo has to say:

Q: How does using baby sign language benefit both babies and their caregivers? How does signing help little ones form secure attachments?

A: Because signs make the task of “reading” the preverbal baby so much easier, they help parents provide the baby what he or she needs to feel secure. Second, parents who are intently watching for signs are automatically paying closer attention to whatever the baby does, thus increasing the chance that even non-sign signals will be detected. Third, because they reveal to parents how much smarter their baby is than he or she looks (after all, babies do drool a lot!), signs convince parents that there’s truly “somebody home in there,” somebody who is capable of feeling loved and secure or anxious and rejected. That leads to the understanding that it really matters what a parent does. Finally, signs enable babies to share their worlds with their parents, thereby increasing the joy that each takes in the other’s company.

Signs are considerably easier for babies to produce than words, given the dependence of words on complex tiny motor movements within the articulatory system. With signs literally “at their fingertips,” babies are able to communicate what they need, what they see, what they remember, and even what they feel. This level of communication greatly enriches the relationship between babies and the important people in their lives. Specifically, signing…

– reduces frustration (both baby’s AND parents’)
– helps babies share what’s on their minds (and show adults that they are a lot smarter than most adults assume)
– enriches the parent-infant bond
– builds self-confidence and 
– fosters healthy emotional development.

Related: How to Use Baby Sign Language as an Attachment Parenting Tool 

Q: What are your top tips for getting started with baby sign language? Is there an ideal age to start?

A. Start signing whenever you like, but it is recommended to start between six and nine months. Here are a few tips:

1. Start with just a few signs. MILK, MORE, EAT, DRINK are good ones.
2. Always use the sign and word together.
3. Repeat the sign and the word as frequently as possible.
4. Point when you can to whatever the sign stands for.
5. Guide the baby’s hands—gently!
6. Make signing a part of daily activities.
7. Watch for opportunities.
8. Don’t expect perfection.
9. Be patient.
10. Make signing fun!
 Q: Do you have a favorite story a caregiver has shared with you about using your program? 

A: A caregiver was changing a baby’s diaper, holding the baby’s legs up with one hand while working with the other.  Suddenly, the baby opened her eyes wide and repeatedly signed “Gentle, gentle!” (stroking the back of one hand with the other).  The caregiver knew immediately that she was hurting the baby by holding her legs too tightly!  Without the sign, the baby would only have been able to cry and the caregiver would have thought she should just hurry to get it done faster!


About the Expert:

Dr. Linda Acredolo is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California at Davis and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of child development. Based upon research conducted with collaborator Dr. Susan Goodwyn and funded by the National Institutes of Health, she and Dr. Goodwyn co-authored the best-selling book entitled BABY SIGNS: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, and founded the Baby Signs Program. Continuing their mission to bridge the gap between research labs and family living rooms, Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn published two additional bestselling books for parents, Baby Minds: Brain-building Games Your Baby Will Love and Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start. Dr. Acredolo serves on the Advisory Board for PARENTS Magazine and is a Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society.


Photo:Anya Ponti/Shutterstock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *