I remember being at a restaurant with my daughter when she was under a year old. My husband and I were signing with her during the meal. A woman sitting near us was watching in awe and commented that her grandson’s daycare uses sign language with the babies, but she wasn’t sure if babies that young could actually benefit.
You, too, may see babies and toddlers use sign language for words like “milk” or “all done” and wonder what it is and if it has any benefits. The term “baby sign language” is widely used to refer to pairing a few American Sign Language (ASL) signs while speaking for babies and toddlers to communicate. Teaching your child sign language has many significant benefits to consider. What are those benefits exactly?
Teaching Your Child Sign Language
Benefits For Babies
1. Early communication.
Your baby may be able to use sign language to communicate before their first spoken word! This is because they are highly motivated to communicate their needs and wants before they can use spoken language. Their signs will look different from yours, and that is a-okay!
2. Lower frustrations and boost confidence.
It can be such a game-changer when you can more quickly understand what your baby is trying to communicate. Your baby will feel less frustrated because they can communicate more clearly with you, but they will also feel much more confident in themselves!
3. Supports spoken language development.
Many parents worry that using sign language will delay their baby’s speech development. Research has shown that it is actually the opposite!1 Language supports language, so using sign language with your baby facilitates and supports their spoken language development.
4. Multi-sensory learning.
This is when learning happens through more than one sense (such as touch, auditory, visual, etc.). Our babies naturally learn this way: putting items in their mouths, hitting them on surfaces, throwing, and the list goes on. Sign language is multi-sensory because it is visual, kinesthetic, and tactile (plus auditory when paired with our spoken words), allowing our babies to learn language in the most natural way.
Benefits for Toddlers
1. Lessen frustrations and tantrums.
Your toddler’s brain is right-side dominant. This hemisphere is known for emotions, impulses, and nonverbal communication. Sign language is nonverbal communication and can allow your toddler to utilize their strengths within this area of their brain. When a meltdown or tantrum does occur, this side of the brain is even more in control. When that happens, sign language can allow you to communicate more effectively with them until they are calmer.
2. Multi-sensory learning.
Toddlers are also very much multi-sensory learners! They thrive when learning is hands-on, feeding many of their senses and learning styles at once. Using sign language alongside their learning and play can truly benefit them, regardless of the learning style(s) they respond to best.
3. Extend current language skills.
The vocabulary and language abilities throughout toddlerhood vary greatly.2 When they have their first birthday, words are very new and just starting to emerge. As they approach their second birthday, word combinations are more likely, with full sentences and imaginations blooming as they become preschoolers. During this time of immense language growth, sign language can help extend their current language skills and bridge the gap between what they want to communicate and what they can communicate clearly. Teaching your child sign language can help your toddler clarify what they are saying because some words can be hard to understand and help them communicate beyond what they can say verbally. All of this helps reduce frustrations, too.
4. Opportunity to become bilingual or multilingual.
Because “baby sign language” are signs from American Sign Language, it is possible for your toddler to become bilingual (or multilingual) in ASL. Knowing more than one language has many benefits, such as considering others’ perspectives, having superior problem-solving skills, and improved memory. It is also easier to learn additional languages because languages foster and reinforce one another.
Your Next Steps
These benefits of teaching your child sign language are truly remarkable! If you are interested in teaching sign language to your baby or toddler, I recommend these two additional steps:
Find a reputable source.
This is vital because ASL is the native language of the Deaf community. Many “baby sign language” books do not teach correct signs, even though they are published by major companies and recommended by speech-language pathologists or pediatricians. When vetting a source or expert (such as myself), it is essential to ensure they hold a degree or certification in a Deaf-related field (such as a Teacher of the Deaf or interpreter). And that they have a background in child development, learned ASL from the Deaf community, and respect the culture and values of the Deaf.
Take time to learn about the Deaf community and culture.
Learning about any culture or community different from yours is eye-opening and an excellent opportunity to reflect and learn a new perspective. These websites are a great starting point:
Not knowing what your child is trying to communicate is frustrating on both sides. They want to communicate with you so badly but don’t have the words yet, and you want to figure out what in the world they need so badly. Sign language can open that line of communication and help you enjoy more positive interactions with your young child, which I believe is a common goal many parents share. The more time we spend with our young children creating memories, strengthening our bond, and creating trust, the better!