The New Baby Talk

Sign language lets babies communicate long before they can speak -- and may even make them happier and smarter.

A Helping Hand

How many times have you looked at your baby -- especially when he was fussing or wailing -- and desperately wondered what he wanted? Like most parents, you probably resigned yourself to living with the mystery: After all, it'll be months before your child can say that he's thirsty or tired, or that he wishes you'd read him a story. But what if there was a way the two of you could communicate much sooner?

That's the idea behind Baby Sign Language, a collection of simple gestures that children can begin learning and using well before their first birthday. It's easy and fun to teach -- and it can bring you closer to your child.

Baby Sign Language: Starter Signs
Baby Sign Language: Starter Signs

A Helping Hand

Baby Sign Language was invented in the early 1980s by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D., a professor of child development at California State University at Stanislaus. At the time, Dr. Acredolo's daughter, Kate, was not quite a year old, "and we noticed she was making up signs for certain objects," Dr. Goodwyn recalls. "If she saw a flower, for instance, she'd point at it, wrinkle her nose, and sniff."

Intrigued, Dr. Acredolo and Dr. Goodwyn developed Baby Signs, a formal sign language for hearing babies that includes more than 100 gestures. Some of them are from American Sign Language (or ASL, the language of the deaf); others are baby-friendly modifications.

In 1996, the professors released a book, Baby Signs, to wide acclaim. Nowadays, baby-signing classes are offered at hospitals and community centers nationwide. Part of the reason it's popular, though, is that no formal training is needed. The simple guide below can get you started.

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