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Understanding Baby Sign Language

The Whys and Hows


Want your baby to be a verbal powerhouse? Start with signing. Research shows that babies who learned signs when they were 10 to 12 months old had notably more advanced vocabularies as toddlers than their non signing counterparts, and their average IQ that was 12 points higher at 8 years old.

Introducing a baby to sign language isn’t exactly intuitive - you’re teaching your preverbal child a second language before he learns his first one? - but there are a few key reasons why using signs now aids better verbal development later. And think about it this way: When you wave hello or goodbye, or shake or nod your head to communicate with your little one, you’re already using preverbal signs to communicate with him.

We talked to the coauthor of Baby Signs, one of America's most popular and respected baby sign books, Linda Acredolo professor emeritus at University of California-Davis and co-founder of the Baby Signs Institute.

  • Communication breakthrough. “Signing gets babies excited about communication, because it reveals to them that they can get what they need if they can tell someone,” Acredolo says. And just as crawling inspires babies to walk, success at signing motivates babies to work on speech. But don’t worry that your little one won’t talk if he can sign: In her book “Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk,” Acredolo says babies tend to drop the sign as soon as they can speak the word it represents.
  • Faster brain development. Every time a baby learns, her brain foundation changes. Signing boosts brain development by “doing a lot of the underlying neurological work for learning to talk, but doing it earlier,” Acredolo says.
  • Exposure to more words. Another benefit of signing is that it’s likely to make you speak more with your child, exposing him to more words. Plus, “signing makes book reading more fun” for your baby by letting him be a more active participant - he can identify things he sees, a key components of language learning. Signing also allows the baby to start conversations.
  • Less frustration. Researchers have found that signing can lead to better communication between parents and babies, increased baby self-esteem, richer parent-baby bonds, and reduced tantrums and frustrations.

Using Signs

Baby sign language is loosely based on American Sign Language, but there are no verbs to conjugate or vocabulary lists to memorize. How can you get started? A number of books and DVDs can guide you through this "language."

Here are Acredolo's tips for getting started:

  • The ideal time to start is around 9 or 10 months
  • Start with just a few basics signs - focus on signs for eat, drink, diaper change and names of pets.
  • Always use the word as well as the sign, and repeat both several times. Try to incorporate the signs into your daily routine and talk about what you’re doing as you do it.
  • Don’t get caught up on the number of signs your baby learns. Some babies will learn and use only a handful while a few have learned 40 or more.
  • Be patient. Each baby is different, and depending on what else your child is attempting to learn at the same time - walking, for example - the time it takes for her to begin comprehending and responding to signs will vary. She may be devoting more of her energy at a given moment to learning to walk!
What is My Baby Saying? 4

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