Written by: Micah Smith-Khan, M.S., CCC-SLP
Many parents find that using signs and gestures with their children before they can talk gives their children an early way to express themselves, which can empower children, reduce frustration, disambiguate early vocal approximations, and strengthen the parent-child bond which leads to more communication.
Children’s motor development and receptive language skills develop before verbal skills. Teaching babies and toddlers gestures and signs can provide children with a means of expressing their needs and ideas before they are able to effectively verbalize words, which shows them the power of communication, motivating them to continue to try to communicate.
Using one or two dozen salient keyword signs can go a long way toward empowering a child and reducing frustration from not being understood, however, keep in mind that this does not constitute a “language” on its own, as it is important to note that American Sign Language (ASL) is a formal language as complex and difficult to attain fluency in as any spoken language, with its own distinctive syntax and morphology.
Signs can also give children a means of clarifying and disambiguating meaning when their simple word approximations (e.g., ba, da) stand for multiple words early on. When my daughter was around a year old, she used the sound “ba” to refer to half a dozen things (book, ball, bear, oat bar, bath, bike). Whenever she said “ba” I would guess what she meant based on the context (e.g., “you want the ball?”). I still remember the first time she was able to use a sign combined with the sound to clarify that I had actually misunderstood her, as she said “ba” again and signed “book.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a child’s signs and gestures provide a window into what the child is thinking before they can talk, which can help the parent feel closer and more attuned to their child, and more likely to respond with more language. This strengthens the parent-child relationship and social-emotional development, which is the foundation for all other development.
– Choose first signs that are important to your family (and ideally have a relatively simple C- or O- or open handshape), such as names of family members (e.g., mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, baby, dog, etc.), common routines (eat, drink, sleep, play, walk), and favorite toys/objects/activities/food (book, ball, doll, car, music, milk, etc.).
– To increase relevance and repetition, sign with your child during familiar daily routines like eating, diaper changes, dressing, bathing, bedtime, singing and playing.
– To teach signs initially, you can seat your child in your lap with their back to your chest, and move their hands to demonstrate the signs.
– Imitate your child’s attempts to sign by signing and saying the word, and adding to it. For example, if your child signs “dog,” you can sign and say “dog,” followed by, “yes! there’s the dog, she’s sleeping.”
– Have fun! And remember that your child is taking in much more than they are expressing. They may not imitate signs right away, but when you sign with your child, you are providing an extra modality for them to understand and eventually express language.
Goodwyn S. W., Acredolo L. P., & Brown C. A. ( 2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24, 81–103.
Seal, B. (2010, Nov 1). About Baby Signing. The ASHA Leader. https://doi.org/10.1044/leader.FTR5.15132010.np
Free online ASL dictionary resource: