Language skills targets for babies and toddlers: 3. Signs

Mar 9, 2016

For children just starting to understand words, baby sign language can be a huge boost to their developing language skills. Children are often ready to learn what words mean before they can make the right sounds with their mouths. This post shares a few simple tips for getting your little one started with signs, without having to take a whole course and learn a new language yourself!


It’s easier for babies to gesture than speak, so they can generally use signs before they can speak words. Signs can be introduced as early as you like. If your baby is paying attention to you when you talk to her, and can make deliberate hand gestures (e.g. she can reach for things), you could try it out. Signs will be easier for her to learn when she is starting to notice and understand a few words, such as her name and the word ‘No’. Usually this happens well before the first birthday.

To get started, try picking a few words you’d like to emphasise. You can use the recognised baby sign language for those words, or invent your own sign in a way that feels natural to you. Be consistent in the way you use it, and always say the word very clearly at the same time.

We started off with more, eat, drink, open and done. Here’s how those signs look:

More: Bring your hands in front of your chest, bunch your fingers together, and tap the fingertips together twice. A baby may imitate this by banging their fists together. It’s worth noting that if your baby can’t clap, this sign might be hard for them as it involves bringing both hands together to the center of their body.

EatMime putting food into your mouth with one hand.

DrinkMime holding and drinking from an imaginary cup.

OpenPut your two hands in front of your chest, with the palms facing outwards, then move them apart, so that they are on either side of your body and rotate them so that the palms face inwards.  We simplified the open sign by starting with hands in a praying position (palms together in front of the chest) then opening them up. Much easier for a baby!

DoneHold your hands in front of your chest with the palms facing inwards, then rotate them so the palms face out, showing that your hands are empty. We simplified this one too with my own more natural gesture for all done, or all gone: putting my hands flat in front of my chest, the left one a little above the other, then moving them out to the side, the way you might when gesturing that a discussion is over!

Using sign language makes us speak in single, clear words. We give lots of emphasis and tend to be extra expressive and make eye contact. This makes the communication interesting for a baby and gets their attention. For the adult, it’s also useful practice in speaking at just the right level for a child just starting to understand and learn words.

In my own experience, I had some success with signing words with my babies, but found that they never signed without also trying to make the sound of the word, so we quickly moved to single words. After all, the purpose is to encourage our kids to start talking, not to use signs instead of words! For us, signs were of most use in drawing my children’s attention to the words I was using.

If baby sign language interests you then take a look at, where there is lots of freely accessible information on the subject.

This post is the third in a series on communication skills young children develop on their way to better and better communication. Next up, helping babies and toddlers learn to follow directions.

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Looking for more strategies and ideas to get your little one talking? Check out my book for strategies that work, and hundreds of fun playtime activities to share.

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