Baby signing is a way to open up conversation with your child well before they can talk – and with potential benefits that last from infancy into young adulthood

Words: Rachel Hogg

Picture this, you are taking your baby to the park, and you tell them this by using the signs for ‘walk’ and ‘park’. Strangely, your baby keeps signing back to you the words ‘cat’ and ‘bed’ and at first you think they have misunderstood. But then you remember that this time last week when you were heading to the park along this very same road you saw a cat sleeping on a wall. You realise that your baby has remembered that encounter and wanted to share the memory with you. They started this conversation with you using baby signing. This was, in fact, a real experience between a mum and a baby and illustrates just how useful and rewarding baby signing can be. The experts say this is a tool capable of opening up a rewarding dialogue between parents and children well before spoken conversation begins.

It is important to distinguish ‘baby signing’ from ‘sign language’, as they are two separate entities with different purposes. British Sign Language (BSL) is specific to the deaf community and is a complete language in its own right with an alphabet and grammatical structures. Baby signing, on the other hand, is the use of gestures with spoken language. It is not meant as a substitute for the spoken word, but rather as a means of supporting language and helping young children engage with their world. Baby signing involves parents using a limited number of simple gestures to support words as they are spoken. This helps encourage communication and underpins the natural development of your child’s speech.

“Baby signing kick-starts the process of learning to recognise and label feelings – an important step in developing emotional intelligence”

Baby signing today has its roots in the US and is generally acknowledged to have started with the work of Dr Joseph Garcia (then an American Sign Language interpreter). He noticed that children of deaf friends who used ASL communicated by six months old, whereas children in verbal households tend to start limited communication at 12 months plus. A similar concept was pursued by two University of California child development academics in the 1990s, Dr Linda Acredolo and Dr Susan Goodywn. They spent some 20 years developing an impressive body of evidence and techniques for baby signing, also publishing books accessible to families. Here in the UK, baby signing has found many champions. Sasha Felix developed one of the first parent programmes, Sing and Sign, some 20 years ago – initially as a means to help her own young child’s development by combining baby signing with music. Sing and Sign has now introduced thousands of families to baby signing using music.

Baby signing benefits
Sing and Sign has introduced thousands of families to baby signing using music – making this an enjoyable and easy way to learn key signs

Getting started

While learning a language and teaching it to your child may seem daunting, baby signing does not require a huge investment of time – nor does it feel like an imposition. Gesturing when we speak is something most of us do instinctively, especially when we’re talking to children. Baby signing also acts as a natural extension of children’s own gestural stage, which is an important part of speech and language acquisition in early years.

The process of learning baby signing can be fun too. You can get started by reading books or watching online videos, however, a popular and social option is to attend in-person classes with your baby. Whatever route you choose, once you have started to pick up the basics it’s easy to implement these throughout your daily life. Armed with this new simple language of gestures, you then pass on these communication tools to your child.

A popular age to start implementing baby signing is around 6 months – once an infant can sit up and use their hands to sign things out. Sasha Felix believes this is the best age to start, but some parents are keen to get going even earlier and Sing and Sign has even introduced a class that caters for newborns. It’s important to note that baby signing does not interfere with your child’s natural speech development. Once your child becomes verbal, they will typically start to phase out their signing because it is quicker to speak than sign. That said, children may still continue to include a sign for emphasis, out of habit or when they are being particularly insistent.  

Baby signing may bring benefits that long well after children have learned to talk – not least positive communication and emotional awareness

Family benefits

The broader goal of baby signing is to help families to communicate, and the benefits are felt by parents and children alike. For parents it is a good way of learning how to speak clearly and communicate words and concepts at a level infants can understand. It also gives vital, and fascinating insight into how children navigate the world. “It means they can communicate so much of what they are seeing, experiencing and feeling, so it’s a wonderful tool for bonding and getting to know your child”, says Sasha Felix.

While communication is the first goal, when a child has the opportunity and means to express their thoughts, feelings and desires this does usually end up having a positive impact on behaviour. “I would never be so presumptuous as to say that it takes away the frustrations of a two-year-old,” says Sasha Felix. “Little people often have big feelings, and the goal of baby signing isn’t to get rid of those feelings but to help them better communicate them.”

C Singnsign Nappychange
Small children have big emotions, says Sing and Sign’s Sasha Felix, but enabling communication may reduce tantrums and meltdowns

So don’t expect a total absence of temper tantrums or meltdowns. There is no such thing as a weak-willed two-year-old, and the goal of signing isn’t to turn your little one into an obedient robot. That said, arming them with extra communication skills does help with conflict de-escalation. Children are likely to pause to respond, and also feel more understood and listened to through the process of signing to you. Another big benefit is that baby signing naturally kick-starts the process of learning to recognise and label feelings, which is an important step in developing emotional intelligence.

While learning to hold a conversation with someone still in nappies may seem strange at first, baby signing is fun for both sides and establishes an environment of engagement and positive communication from the earliest years. Families that implement these simple language tools often continue to feel the benefits long after their little ones have moved on from signing and grown into talkative young people – and that’s got to be an idea worth investing in.

* For more about baby signing classes and resources, visit

Further reading: Understanding speech and language delay