Sign Language: How I Learned to Speak Baby

When I learned how to communicate with my baby, her world was opened up to me.

In college I was referred to babysit for a new family. They were planning a move and mom needed time to organize and pack without distractions. I met mom and baby, Naomi, at the local hands on museum for a couple of hours of play. But there was something I hadn’t yet learned about the child in my care.

Naomi was a sweet girl who seemed to really look at me, do you know what I mean? It was like I could see her wheels turning as she stood, waiting for me to hang up our coats.

Hands on museums are as much fun for me as they are for children. I walked with Naomi through the exhibits feeling like a kid again myself. It was no problem at all, to crawl through a model digestive system and slide down the tongue, or cast our ballot in the daily play-vote.

At one point, we found a room with crafts and books set out on small tables. We took a seat, but Naomi didn’t seem interested. I love books, so I kept trying to draw her back into the activity She kept waving her hands, but in a way that looked intentional though not frantic. Her eyes looked alert, but her face was relaxed. “I’m sorry honey, I know you want something but I just don’t know what it is!” I said aloud.

“Excuse me,” a voice came from a woman seated at the kid-sized table next to ours. “She is saying, ‘water.’ She may be asking for a drink, or to play in the water table around the corner.”

I looked at her, dumbfounded. “What?” I sputtered, amazed and a little confused that this stranger somehow could read this child’s silence.

“I’m sorry, I’m Janice.” She introduced herself. “I am a speech and language pathologist, volunteering at this station. This little girl is using sign language and repeating the sign, ‘water.’”


The fog in my mind began to clear. I quickly excused my ignorance. The only thing more surprising than learning the thoughts of a pre-verbal child was wondering why her mother didn’t alert me to her skill!

As you can guess, she didn’t want a drink of water. Naomi led me right to the water table where we played with an elaborate ball-moving contraption for the rest of the morning.

I babysat Naomi again a few more times before the family moved away. In subsequent days, her mother taught me some of their most well-used signs. Naomi would sign “shoes” when she wanted to play in the yard, or “cookie” when she wanted a snack.

Once I spoke her language, we got along swimmingly. I had never met a more relaxed toddler, which I attribute to her ability to communicate her wants and needs with relative clarity.

Now I have a baby, and it is time for me to do the teaching. At around 9 months, my husband and I watched a great DVD about baby sign language. It has been a couple of months of regular practice, and I am still thrilled when I see my daughter clearly asking for milk (a good first sign for obvious reasons).

(I would highly suggest reading or watching/attending a program on baby sign language rather than winging it. I knew some signs from the experience I described above, but learned much more about teaching and understanding a baby through the educational material. I used Sign with Your Baby by Joseph Garcia)

“All done” was actually the first sign we taught our baby L. What makes me so happy is to see the recognition on her face, and in her actions when she hears this phrase. Moms and dads, I get downright giddy. When my baby is whining, sometimes I can actually get her to STOP! One benefit of teaching baby L signs, was that we were unintentionally intentional about also teaching the meaning of the phrase, which she learned to attribute to various situations.

If baby doesn’t like her diaper changed I say, “all done” verbally, and she stops whining. The same thing happens when I wash her face, or pick food out of her hair. When I’m not sure what she wants, I just go through the few signs we know, and wait for her to show recognition, or repeat the sign, and go from there.

In this crazy life of a parent I am just happy for one less thing to guess at. Communicating via sign language is probably my favorite  guilt-free mom trick.

Do you sign with your baby?

What are the most important signs in your household?



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.