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

      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.

        Finger Tips

        It's never too early to use signs with your baby. But he'll be more likely to try them himself if he's at least 6 months old and already makes gestures on his own, like waving "bye-bye." These steps can make the learning process smoother.

        • Begin with just a few signs. It'll be easier for you to remember how to make them and to do them often. Start with the ones you think will be most useful, like "eat," "drink," and "more." (For some basic signs, see "Ready, Set, Sign!".)
        • As you make a sign, always say the word it stands for. You want signing to be a bridge to verbal language, not to take its place. Try to also remember to make the sign every time you mention the word it signifies -- consistency is key.
        • Don't sign off so quickly. Children learn through repetition. So if you're asking your child if she's hungry, make the sign for "eat" several times, and pose the question in different ways: "Would you like something to eat?" "Want to eat?" and so on. If you're making the sign for an object, point to the object afterward, say its name, then repeat the process at least twice.
        • Find opportunities throughout the day. If you only make the "dog" sign when your neighbor's collie trots by, your child may equate it with that dog alone. But if you also sign and say "dog" whenever Clifford is on TV or when you see a picture of a dog in a book, your child will soon learn that the gesture -- and the word -- stand for all dogs.

          Long-Term Benefits

          Can signing make a baby talk late -- or less? Dr. Acredolo and Dr. Goodwyn wondered about this too. Before their book's release, they conducted a major study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

          In fact, they found just the opposite to be true. Babies who signed developed verbal language skills at a rate faster than average. "We think it's partly because when a baby signs, the people around him talk to him more," Dr. Goodwyn says. "People say things like 'Oh, look, you're patting your head! Do you want a hat?' Comments like these, directed to a baby, are crucial to the child's language development." Other preliminary findings suggest these kids develop higher IQs too.

          Currently, the professors are studying whether signing and the line of communication it opens can improve a baby's temperament. So far, the best evidence comes from parents like Rebecca Yoder, of Tampa. She started teaching her daughter, Lauren, to sign at 6 months and quickly noticed a difference in her behavior. "Lauren became less tearful and less prone to tantrums," Yoder says. "If she wanted a toy that was out of reach, she was able to signal that she needed help, instead of crying and fussing. It brought us to a whole new level of closeness."

          Ready, Set, Sign!

            Baby Sign Language: Mealtime

              Want to try signing? Here are some easy gestures to start with:

              Bring your fingertips to your lips.

              Bring your thumb to your lips, as though you're about to suck it.

              Tap your fingertips together.

              Diaper/Diaper Change
              Pat your hips.

              Put hands together as though in prayer, then rest one side of your head against them.

              Put your hand to your ear.

              Open and close your palms (as if opening and closing a hardcover).

              Trace whiskers across your cheeks with your fingertips.

              Pant with your tongue out.

              Touch your index finger and thumb together by your mouth; close and open them as though they were a beak.