Baby Sign Language: What Signs to Start With

If you are a parent of a baby or toddler (or currently pregnant) you probably have heard of “baby sign.” But what exactly is it and why would you want to use sign language with your child? How? Where and when should you start? This is one of many posts I am writing this month on the topic of sign language and why I think it’s awesome for babies and children of all ages to learn it!

The last couple weeks, I shared the definition of sign language and why I am thankful I am using it with with my 16 month old son Ev. I also shared the many benefits of teaching sign to your little ones, when to start and why I recommend using ASL, and how YOU can learn ASL. With all this info it is now time to talk about which signs to teach your child first!

Which signs should you start with?

First of all…there are no “right” or “wrong” signs to start with. The signs you choose to start with may vary from the signs your friend will choose to start with for her child. First lets look at some questions you should ask yourself before starting.

Questions to ask yourself when choosing signs for your child:

ASL for "book" thanks to Lifeprint.com

  • What is your child interested in? Animals? Balls? Going outside?
  • What motivates your little one? Little ones are usually always motivated by their favorite foods and drinks, but what else motivates your child to communicate to you in some way? If your little one is really little…this may be harder but usually tiny ones are motivated by milk, diaper changes, story time, etc. For little ones who eat things other than milk, what are his/her favorite foods? Favorite toys? Favorite books? Activities?
  • What things do you see, do, hear everyday with your little one? Story time, bath time, night-night time?

 

How to choose your child’s first signs
Read and answer the questions above. What have you come up with? Make a list of your child’s interests and things that motivate him/her to communicate to you. Which signs do you feel you can incorporate into your child’s day?

Some recommendations of first signs from different sources
If you do a google search or read the different books out there on baby sign, you will get some different recommendations on which signs to start with. Here are some:

  • Signing Time! recommends starting with four basic signs: milk, more, eat, finished/all done
  • Joseph Garcia, author of Sign With Your Baby recommends the signs milk, more and eat.
  • Acredolo and Goodwyn, Authors of Baby Signs recommend hat, bird, flower, fish, and more. 
  • Baby Sign Language.com recommends the following starter signs: mommy, daddy, (and other close family members); pets such as dog and cat; milk, eat, more, all done, diaper, happy, book, and the sign for a favorite toy like ball.

What I recommend

Sign for "milk", open and close fist as you are milking a cow. Image thanks to Lifeprint.com

As you can see…there are some common signs listed above:  milk, more, eat, all done are the most common recommended signs and for the most part…I agree with these as being good starter signs. But my biggest recommendation is to pick signs that represent words you use often during the day…which means your child’s favorite foods, drinks, toys, and activities. Examples may include:

  • Food/Drink/meal time: milk, water, banana, cracker, apple, more, all done/finished
  • Pets: dog, cat, fish
  • Activities/routines: bath, bed, eat, read/book, diaper
  • Toys: ball, car, baby, bear
  • People: mommy, daddy, brother, sister

A note about the sign for “more”

"more" image thanks to Lifeprint.com

One of the easiest and first signs many babies and toddlers with learn first is the sign for “more.” In my work as a speech pathologist, I have taught signs to children with various special needs (speech and language delays, apraxia, autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X, and other intellectual disabilities). In my training as an SLP I was taught when using sign language or any other forms of Augmentative or Alternative Communication (AAC) methods, that we should actually avoid teaching “more.”

Why? Because “more” is non specific. A child may start signing “more” frantically..but more what? More food? More drink? More sleep? This can become very frustrating for both the child and the caregivers. When the context is known “more” is a very effective sign but unfortunately, this is not always the case.

When I was teaching my daughter sign, I did teach her the sign for “more” as one of her first signs and I experienced first hand what I had learned in my grad school classes. My daughter used that sign as a default all the time and there were many times in which I did not know what she was wanting. However…for my typically developing daughter, this phase did not last long. She quickly learned new signs as well as new spoken words and we were past this “more” phase. When I started teaching my son sign, I decided I would make sure he had a few other signs first before we introduced “more.” This worked well for us. Today, if he doesn’t know the sign for a food item he will sign “more” or “cookie” and when this happens I will tell him the word and sign for the item. He now puts two signs together all the time for “more milk” or “more cookie” and he is just 16 months old. If your child is otherwise typically developing, teaching the sign for “more” will probably be fine but I do encourage you to take note of the things he is requesting “more” of so that you can introduce these words and signs to him!

So how exactly to you teach your child these signs? That is coming up soon!

If you sign to your child, what signs did you start with?

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links.

About Katie

Katie is a licensed, credentialed and certified pediatric speech-language pathologist and mom to three (5, 3 and 9 months). Her passion about educating, inspiring and empowering parents of children with all abilities led her to start her blog Playing With Words 365 where she shares information about speech and language development, therapy ideas and tips, intervention strategies and a little about her family life too. Katie has been working in the field of speech pathology for 9 years and is certified in The Hanen Centre’s It Takes Two to Talk ® and Target Word ® programs and holds a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In addition to blogging and being a mommy, Katie works part time in her small private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. My son loved to sign before he could talk. Once he began talking, he would sign and say “More” as if by doing both he could tell me how much he really, really wanted more! We watched videos that taught us animal and family signs but he really only ever signed the food signs.
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  2. I signed too! Her first signing words were “More”, “Milk” and “All Done”. She uses the first two more often though. But I didn’t use the standard sign language. “Milk” is the usual pumping action… but our “More” was one hand out-stretched with the other pointing into it to symbolise wanting more. I don’t know… that made sense to me. She’s 2.5 years now and while she has learnt to talk, she sometimes still does the signs unconsciously. :)
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    • Ming! So awesome to “see” you! I love that you signed too :) I’m going to head over to your blog and see how your cutie is doing! :D

  3. I like the idea of having signs unique to the child and not teaching a universal system. While there are advantages to a universal system I think that having something that is developed 2 way will be much quicker to learn as you can take advantage of the motions that the child develops for themselves.
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  4. Jessica says:

    We signed with our son and are now starting with our daughter. We started with eat, more, and all done and then added from there. He was able to sign well before 6 months and I also think it helped him talk early as we ALWAYS said the sign as we did it.

  5. LOVED signing with my boys–we started with “dog” (we had 3 dogs at the time), “milk”, “more”, “all done”, “help” and “eat”. once we realized (when our oldest was 7 months old) that he was signing “help” and then pointing to things, we saved the Michigan State ASL video site on our computer and started looking up EVERYTHING. my parents could not believe our nearly 1 year old would sign “watermelon” and “banana”. he knew so many words and once he started talking, he also kept signing. our other 2 sons signed also, but not as proficiently as our oldest. it was still a life saver! :)
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  6. As a fellow SLP (and mommy blogger) I loved this article on using Sign. A huge part of my practice is teaching sign to all kinds of families and kiddos. I LOVE that you talked about discouraging the “more” sign. Thank you for that! I found you recently through another SLP friend and love the whole site. I am constantly sharing your posts and blogs.

    • Kim WELCOME!!! Love meeting fellow SLps and signing friends :) Yes the “more” sign (and the word more) I try to not use for a while with sign and especially for speech delayed children. With my daughter I went ahead and taught her the sign early on and she used it a TON of course, but my son, whom I didn’t teach t to until much later, ended up learning a LOT more signs.

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  1. […] son Ev. I also shared the many benefits of teaching sign to your little ones, when to start and what signs to start with. In addition, I explained why I recommend using ASL and provided ways on how YOU can learn ASL. […]

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