Monday, May 04, 2015

How On Earth Do I Get My Baby to Sign Back to Me?

Many new parents learn the signs for “milk”, “more” and “eat” when they start signing with their baby.  You might see other parents using these signs and some of the earlier baby sign language books recommended starting with just these three. The big question at this point that many parents ask is, “How on earth do I get my baby to sign back to me?”

Your Starting Signs

Most parents (and child care educators as well as nannies) begin with signs that are based on their baby’s needs, such as the signs for: milk, eat, more, sleep, diaper change, etc. Some parents and caregivers start signing with their baby with signs that represent items that interest their baby like “cat” or “light”. Still others begin with the basics like teaching the signs for “mommy” and “daddy”. One grandmother I met told me she was only going to use the sign “grandma” with her granddaughter!

What signs you choose to start with when you are signing with your baby is completely up to you. I do suggest that you begin with a few signs that represent both “motivating items” as well as “frequently occurring activities”. Maybe start with motivating signs, such as "milk", “dog”, “fan” and “more” and add signs for activities that you do each and every day with baby, for example, “sleep”,  “eat”, “change”, “bath” and “play”.

I've got my list of signs to start with….now what?


It's always best to try to use the sign, while saying the word, before, during and after an activity every time you do that activity. For example, when using the sign for “milk”….
  • BEFORE: Say the word and show the sign for “milk” right before it’s time to give your baby milk.
  • DURING: Then once your baby is nursing or getting a bottle, say the word and show the sign while they are drinking. Do this a few times during the activity and the association will come pretty quickly to your baby. 
  • AFTER: when the activity is finished, this is a great time to show the sign for “milk” again and pair it with the sign for “finish”. Remember, always say the word when you sign it.

Start with a Few Signs and Be Consistent

As with any parenting strategy that you’ll use, being consistent is most important. Try and remember to use the starting signs you’ve chosen each and every time they can be shown based on your daily activities. Consistency is very important but don’t be too hard on yourself.


This is a time that you are learning new skills, new routines. You may be feeling very anxious and you are most likely feeling tired…very tired.  Remember that no one is perfect.  Just remember to sign as much as you can…using the list of signs that you've chosen for your baby and to be as consistent as you can. 

How Will I Know If He Is Understanding Me?

You've got your list of starting signs. You are showing these signs to your baby before, during and after activities related to these signs as consistently as you can. How can you tell if your child is understanding what you are doing?

Most babies will sign back to you between 9 and 11 months of age, but even before then, he may understand what you sign to him. Even if he doesn't sign back to you immediately, after two to three weeks of signing to your baby he may just understand some of what you sign and say to him. How can you tell? Watch his eyes – do they seem to light up with excitement. Does he seem to kick his feet and move his hands in anticipation? If the sign you are using is related to food, does he start moving his tongue and his lips? Signs of understanding can be that simple…and that exciting!

From Understanding to Using Signs

After understanding comes expression. After your baby has learned to understand a few signs, you may notice him signing back between 9 and 11 months of age, especially if you have chosen a starting list of signs that are really motivating to your baby. My son’s first sign was at 9 months of age. His second sign came along 3 weeks later; his third sign came along 3 weeks after that. His fourth, fifth and sixth signs came 2 weeks apart and there was about a week between his seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth sign.  

That’s roughly just over 4 months to learn 10 words – between the ages of 9 and 13 months of age.  After his first 10 words his language learning seem to explode! By the time he was 18 months of age he had a total of 20 spoken words and 60 (yes, sixty!) ASL signs that he would use to communicate expressively!

So What Signs Will You Start With?

We’ve created an easy getting started sign poster that you can use with your baby. Just subscribe to our e-newsletter to get your copy!

Since 2001, WeeHands has been an industry-leading children's sign language and language development program delivered through interactive, fun classes, as well as a line of tailored products. In 2014, WeeHands became part of Morneau Shepell’s Children's Support Solutions, an organization that provides health-centered and educational services to children with differences to help them reach their potential. 
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