Baby sign language

In the popular movie Meet the Fockers, you might recall Robert de Niro’s character teaching his grandson to communicate using signing. In the movie, this is clearly played for laughs, but pre-speech communication and development is a serious subject and baby signing is gaining in popularity worldwide with parents and experts alike.

Babies are clever little people and have an amazing ability to communicate with their parents through movement. Even in utero, a kick or jab is baby reacting to outside stimulus. But a baby’s first attempts at spoken words usually won’t occur until around 12–18 months old as the complex co-ordination of their breathing, tongue, mouth and vocal chords continues to develop and strengthen.

Baby signing offers an effective method of bridging the communication gap when baby hasn’t found his or her voice yet. From as early as six months, babies can use their hands to tell you what they’re thinking, how they feel and what they want. Stimulating expressive communication in pre-verbal children with signing is becoming increasingly popular with parents to bridge the required link from pre-verbal to verbal communication.

“Communicating with your baby is a wonderful experience,” says Natalie Munro, Lecturer in Speech Pathology at the Faculty of Health Sciences at The University of Sydney. “Most, if not all, babies enjoy listening to their caregiver’s voice and watching their caregiver’s face. Babies are struck by facial movements and natural speech rhythms and melodies. Babies have learnt to understand spoken language in this way for thousands of years. Caregivers often use naturalistic gestures that accompany spoken speech. For example, when you want to pick your baby up, caregivers will often look at their baby, say ‘up’ and gesture an upward motion with their arms and hands.

“All these word learning ‘cues’ (eye gaze, speech and hand gestures) help a young child to understand their parents’ intention. Over time, these word-learning cues also help young children to develop their own intentions. Babies first show you their intention by looking at desired objects, pointing, using speech sounds, combining all three of these and eventually by using words.

“Baby signing offers gestural support for words or concepts that the caregiver is trying to impart and, if used as a consistent cue, babies can also use ‘signs’ to help express themselves.”

My own child, Rafferty, began “talking” to us at about 10 months of age through keyword signing and could soon tell me without difficulty or frustration if he was hungry, thirsty, bored or tired.

When a child signs it simply means they are communicating effectively, a huge plus in the early stages of development. But, adds Munro, “It is essential to remember that communication between a caregiver and a hearing baby will occur because of all the available word-learning cues in a baby’s environment, not just the use of a particular hand gesture. It is also important that hand gestures do not occur in isolation; that is, they should be accompanied by speech and eye contact.”

Other parents who watched as my son and I signed together would question its worth and often asked me if I was worried that signing would hinder his desire to speak. The short answer to that question is no! You’ll have to excuse the parental bragging that’s about to follow, but this particular mummy is extremely proud of her little chatterbox.

Having just turned two, Rafferty has a seemingly inexhaustible vocabulary that child health and care professionals have likened to that of a child at least 12 months older. He regularly uses perfectly formed sentences of seven and eight words. He also uses longer imperfectly formed sentences that can occasionally cause embarrassment to the aforementioned mummy, as his cognitive understanding of what he is saying can sometimes fall a little short. Apologies go out to the slightly rotund man in our local store whom he accused, at length, of being pregnant this morning.

Do I think my son is a prodigy who has inherited his verbal smarts from the latent genius of his parents’ DNA? Or that I have the next Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain on my hands? No, not really. What I do think is that, through baby signing, Rafferty was offered a head start in communication and conversation that has been extremely beneficial in his development.

Suggestions that signing may interfere with a baby’s speech and language development are not backed by ongoing studies into the topic, which are more likely to indicate that signing babies, just like my son, typically speak earlier, have larger vocabularies and are better readers than non-signing babies.

“There is no evidence that I’ve found to suggest that signing will delay speech. In fact, every piece of research I’ve seen supports and encourages signing and gesturing with your children,” says Emma Kelly of TinySign, an antipodean offshoot of Britain’s pioneering TinyTalk UK. She is also the wonderful instructor who first taught my family Auslan keyword signing.

Kelly says she’s also seen plenty of compelling anecdotal evidence. “In my experience with my three children, I can see how it’s affected their confidence levels and their speech. I teach in the community where I live, so I bump into a lot of parents of children I’ve taught. As well as positive stories regarding their children’s speech, I also hear how confident and well-adjusted these children are. I really believe that confidence stems from self-esteem and the benefits that learning to communicate at an early age gives them.”

Extensive research into the subject has been conducted by various academics. An ongoing study by Californian child development experts Linda Acredolo PhD and Susan Goodwyn PhD (funded by National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development) is particularly noteworthy.

Acredolo and Goodwyn noticed that babies were spontaneously using simple gestures to represent words they were not yet able to communicate orally, prompting them to research the effects that could be had on communication if parents encouraged this process.

Their study saw 140 families with 11-month-old children divided randomly into two groups: signers and non-signers. Each group was followed up over an eight-year period with Acredolo and Goodwyn concluding there was a clear advantage to using signs with pre-verbal children and that signing to babies helped children in developing both language and cognitive skills.

At the age of two, the signing babies, on average, knew about 50 more words than the non-signers and were able to structure longer sentences. By three the gap in the language abilities of the two groups had increased even more significantly with the signing babies talking at a similar level to that of the average four-year-old. And, by the age of eight, the signing children had an IQ that was on average 12 points higher than that of children of the same age who hadn’t signed.

Over two decades of study, Acredolo and Goodwyn have established that, as well as accelerating speech and general communication skills, improving memory and IQ, baby signing has many other great benefits. These include reduced frustration for babies and their parents as well as enhanced emotional development, self-esteem and confidence.

Signing can also be a useful tool when working with children with existing communication issues, says Munro, who is currently investigating the links between hand gesture cues and spoken word development through the University of Sydney’s Kid’s Talk Lab to assist children with communication impairments. “Children with communication impairments have, for one reason or another, difficulties understanding and/or expressing themselves verbally. Using signing can help these children better understand the world around them as well as convey their intentions to their communication partners.”

In a previous clinical position as a speech pathologist for Lifestart Early Childhood Intervention (, Munro worked with families of children who had a variety of disabilities, ranging from physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy to children who were born with Down Syndrome, using Makaton signs. Makaton is a system of communication most commonly used by people who have speech, learning and cognitive impairments; it helped these children to understand and express themselves.

“One of my fondest memories was working with a gorgeous toddler who had Down Syndrome and teaching her mum and childcare educators key signs to help her when she was at daycare,” Munro recalls. “Over time, this particular child was able to use signs and combinations of signs to convey her wants and needs and she also started using some speech. By working together, we were able to extend her communication skills beyond the small collection of signs to spoken words — it was like the signs were the springboard she needed to start talking. With this little girl, I learned first-hand how gestures coupled with eye contact can be a useful step between ordinary gestures such as pointing and facial expressions to spoken words.”

Signing can also be helpful in treating young children suffering behavioural issues. Having worked with children, interestingly mostly boys, referred by behavioural therapists, Kelly has closely observed the benefits. “Behaviour and communication are closely linked. It’s really interesting because boys especially can have difficulty with communicating because the pull of gross motor skills is so great for them. I’ve worked with a few boys that have been having trouble with their behaviour.”

These children were unable to effectively express their basic needs and, sadly, the resulting frustration with their situations led to a range of behavioural issues, from tantrums to self harm. “In these cases, we were able to turn the situation around because there wasn’t any issue in regards to hearing or speech physically holding them back; it was just a lack of confidence. Signing gave these boys the confidence to use their hands until they were ready to use their voices,” adds Kelly.

Munro says any parents worried about their baby’s communication development should seek advice from a qualified speech pathologist. The Speech Pathology Australia website,, can assist.

It’s important that, as with any new skill, teaching your child sign language should be kept a fun activity and to remember that it is as much about developing a stronger bond though communication and understanding as it is about intellectual development. Sign language in itself is not an indication of intelligence and on its own won’t help a child to become smarter, but plenty of research shows that stimulation and interaction can do so, regardless of whether sign language is a part of this or not.

“I think it also has a lot to do with the type of parent you are,” suggests Kelly. If you are an attentive parent who will spend the time signing with your child, who’ll sit and read and give them plenty of face-to-face time, it’s obviously going to impact on their communication and intellectual development.”

Signing parents do tend to talk more to their babies as words and signs are used in tandem. And the more signs you employ on a daily basis, the more baby will hear how words sound and, as they start signing back and showing interest in words and naming the objects around them, the more information is organically provided.

Kelly says baby signing doesn’t have as big a profile in Australia as it does in the US, UK or Europe. “In the UK, they are introducing teaching of the phonic alphabet and finger spelling into primary schools — it’s incredible. Though we are lagging a bit behind, I think that Australians are starting to see the benefits. In fact, we’re looking for more teachers to keep up with demand from all over the country.”

For our children, that’s a very good sign.


Top tips for teaching your child to sign

When to start
Baby signing can be taught as soon as parents are able to make and keep eye contact with their infant, but around six months is ideal as by this stage most babies have the necessary motor skills to make specific hand-shapes and movements. If your baby is starting to wave, smile, clap and point, these are all indicators that he is getting ready to and want to communicate.

Baby steps
Start by introducing just one or two signs to your baby. Once she is responding to those, you can slowly introduce more.

Keep it consistent
Teach and encourage other family members and caregivers to always use key signs. Incorporating signing into your daily life and routine is the secret to success. You need to develop the habit of always using the sign and spoken word together and always try to sign at your baby’s eye level so he sees the correct sign.

Patience and persistence
All good things come to those who wait. Signing is a learning process and does take time. It requires patience and repetition but once your baby signs his or her first word, usually within 4–6 weeks, others will quickly follow.

Applaud all efforts
When your baby tries to sign, praise and encourage her, even if it isn’t completely correct, and repeat the correct sign and say the word.

Join a group
Like spoken language, sign language differs from country to country. When looking for a signing class or group, it’s advisable to choose one that uses Auslan or NZSL, the languages of the Australian and New Zealand deaf communities. is one such baby signing class that offers parents in Australia and New Zealand the opportunity to learn, making baby signing easy and fun.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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