More about baby signing

”Communication is at the heart of child development” Vygotsky (1979)

What is baby signing?

Baby signing is the use of gestures to represent key words based on sign language, it is not a full language, such as Auslan (Australian Sign language) or BSL (British Sign Language).  Baby signing is a visual communication tool which uses not just your hands but also your body and facial expressions.  It is thought that hand gestures and spoken language are integrally linked in human evolution and that language developed from and within gesture systems rather than from vocal calls (Corballis 2002).

Why use baby signing?

Aids and enhances communication

Face-to-face communication signals such as gesture are a central part of human communication, even without realising it we are using gestures all the time, from shrugs and nods to smiles and waves.  Infants use signs all the time, pointing at things, reaching to be picked up and turning away from things they don’t like.  Baby signing is utilising this skill that we already have and enhancing it, making us aware of the idea and how to notice the little signals they already are giving us as well as giving us the tools to show our infants how to let us know what they want whilst teaching them about their ever expanding world.

One of the most frustrating things for an infant and their carer is the inability to be understood, greater communication can lead to better understanding and a more contented and fulfilled life.

Reduces frustration, tears and tantrums

Psychologist Dr Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon (2008) suggests baby signing has many psychological benefits such as improved confidence and self-esteem, she also suggests better communication through baby signing can reduce feelings of anger and irritability. 

Baby signing can assist with discipline, as its visual language, they will see and comprehend your sign quicker than voice, you can respond to their needs, answer their questions or defuse a potential ‘battle’ before it starts sometimes without even stopping your conversation.  A simple ‘wait’ ‘very good’ or ‘thank you’ sign shows your child you have listened, that you are not ignoring them and you will pay them attention momentarily. 

Stimulates intellectual development

The joint visual attention that comes with teaching your baby to sign is known to be associated with improved language skills (Moore, Acredolo & Goodwyn, 2001), it also teaches focus and improves attention.

Dr Marilyn Daniels (2009) has been researching baby signing in the U.K. and U.S. for over 10 years.  Her studies concluded that baby signing stimulates brain development and that children exposed to sign language had a larger vocabulary than that of their non signing peers.  As baby signing stimulates the same area of the brain as reading and writing, it also helps children translate letters and words to the written language.  Dr Doherty-Sneddon’s studies (2008) also has similar findings, describing a spoken language vocabulary that was more expressive and receptive.

Spoken language, reading and writing mainly uses the left side of your brain, sign language stimulates both sides.  Baby signing not only stimulates the left logical, critical thinking side responsible for reading and writing but also the right side which helps us to deal with emotions, imagination, music and art.  Melissa Lee Phillips (Consultant in Neuroscience) discusses findings from studies carried out that the right side of the brain contains an important part involved in language processing but this part can only be recruited if it is stimulated before a certain age, thus advocating the benefits of baby signing (Phillips 2002).

It is fun

Baby signing is a fun way to interact with your child.  Children learn through games, songs and stories, children are visual learners which is enhanced by facial interaction.  Children thrive from positive encouragement and the more they see you delight in their progress the more they will want to do.  Participating in baby signing gives the infant and carer some dedicated one on one time where they can learn more about each other and enjoy each other, noticing the tiny things that no one else does. 

Some babies pick up signing really quickly and will use many signs whereas others will not, this is all ok.  Using sign language is not about making your child sign but about enhancing communication.  Even if the child does not sign back, their understanding of what you are saying to them will be better as they will recognise the sign with your words.  Some babies will adapt the sign or change it completely to suit them, this is also ok, it doesn’t matter what sign you use as long as you both know what it means, it is about you communicating and being understood.  With baby signing, you are not ‘teaching’ your baby, you are simply adding simple gesture to your normal speech.  It is not a test or a competition, it is purely a fun and simple tool used to make ours and our precious little ones lives that bit better and easier.

Is it similar to Makaton?

Makaton is a communication tool designed to help children and adults who have some form of learning or communication difficulty, it is based on BSL but uses key words and has been simplified for easier use. Baby signing is very similar to Makaton and many baby signing groups use Makaton. At Sunshine Sign and Sing we use Key Word Sign Australia formally known as Makaton Australia which is based on Australian sign language.

Does it delay speech?

There was some suggestions a few years ago that signing might delay the infants speech, making them lazy or reluctant to try to talk.  In fact many studies have shown the opposite result.  Dr Linda Acredolo and Dr Susan Goodwin have spent over 20 years studying the effects of baby signing ( 2019).  They were able to show that babies who learnt to sign had a much larger vocabulary at the age of 2 than their peers who did not.  They found extensive benefits from baby signing including long term positive effects on their intellectual development. 

Why use signs based on Australian sign language?

It is a beautiful language already, with many resources available online and in books to help the carer practice and further expand their signing vocabulary. It is a recognised and used language across Australia and we at Sunshine Sign and Sing love the language and feel it should be taught to everyone at school level. By introducing Australian sign language at a young age and continuing to use the language as they grow, you are giving them the gift to communicate with a wider range of people from the Australian deaf and hard of hearing community, those who have difficulty communicating because of other reasons such as a learning difficulty, a physical difficulty or Autism etc.

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References (2019). Language Development. [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 30 August 2019).

Corballis, M.C. (2002). From hand to mouth: The origins of language. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Daneils, M. (2009). The effect of sign language on hearing children’s language development. Communication Education, 43:4. p.291-298.

Doherty-Sneddon, G. (2008) The great Baby Signing Debate. [Online] Available at: (Accessed 30 August 2019).

Moore, B., Acredolo, L.P. & Goodwyn, S.W. (2001). Symbolic gesturing and joint attention. Paper presented at the Biennial Meetings of the Society for Research In Child Development, Minneapolis, MN.

Philips, M., L. (2002). Sign Language and the Brain. Available at: (Accessed 30 August 2019).

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.