Show Me a Sign, Baby! Preverbal Kids and Sign Language

Baby sign language improves preverbal communication—and it's a fun way to bond with children.


Cheryl White’s baby was fussy. She was colicky, and the long crying jags left both of them frustrated and stressed. If only Rachel could tell her what was wrong, White thought. Then her father-in-law, early childhood expert Burton White, gave her Joseph Garcia’s Sign With Your Baby (Northlight, 1999). White felt some trepidation. Would Rachel want to replace words with signs? Would this delay her speech?

She started teaching sign language to Rachel after her first birthday and was won over immediately. “I’d introduced milk, more, and eat, and within a couple of weeks she was signing back to me in the right context,” she says. White began signing with her second baby, Matthew, when he was two months old.

Sheryl White teaching sign language to a receptive young student.
Photo courtesy of Sheryl White

Distinct from American Sign Language (ASL) and other sign languages, baby sign language typically features simplified gestures and is used with hearing children to help improve preverbal communication. Libraries are getting involved in teaching it, offering classes to parents who want to communicate with their preverbal children. Both library staff and parents give these programs high praise. While it’s a relatively nascent field of study, anecdotal and scientific evidence shows that baby sign language can have long-term benefits. Advocates also note that communication is a core aspect of social emotional development, and boosting it with sign language can only benefit young ones.

White has been teaching baby sign language classes to parents since 1999. Early on, “I spent a lot of time selling the idea—giving anecdotes, talking about the benefits,” she says. “Now, because it’s [more] understood and popular, I spend less time building belief and spend more time hands-on modeling and interacting with the babies.” These days, she teaches in libraries around Massachusetts, including the Boston Public Library, the Hopkinton Public Library (HPL), and the Wellesley Free Library. Her four-week sessions are open to a maximum of 12 families.

Kelly Rosofsky’s daughter Leigh was two and a half months old when they began attending library classes near Newton, MA. “I loved it from the first class,” says Rosofsky, whose daughter’s skills “exploded” at 11 months. Now 16 months old, Leigh knows 12 signs, including milk, more, hat, ball, and dog.

Leigh uses the sign for book when she wants a story. “As we’re reading, she’ll back up to something and sign ‘ball’ because there’s a circle on the page, or ‘baby’ because there’s a carriage.” It’s good for caregivers, too. Adds Rosofsky, “She really likes to show us and practice those skills.” Plus, “It’s the first time that you have insight into what [your child] is thinking about.”

Teaching Tips

Kaelker-Boor, Stylinsky, and White all designed their own programs. Stylinsky suggests learning how to create a syllabus and to make time for questions and answers at classes. White advises caregivers to let babies decide how much they are in the mood to learn. Kaelker-Boor’s tip: Keep the program short—30 minutes or less—and allow for playtime afterward. From Kofron’s vantage point as library staff, it’s important to get the word out and find a passionate teacher in the community—and to let new moms know that it’s OK to miss a class or two and come back.


Using American Sign Language in Storytime Dr. Joseph Garcia: Baby Sign Language Knack Baby Sign Language: A Step-by-Step Guide to Communicating with Your Little One by Suzie Chafin and Johnston Grindstaff

Research and the library connection

Baby sign classes align with the broad mission of libraries, says Denise Kofron, youth services librarian at HPL: “To encourage literacy in children and to make the library a community space with offerings from birth to grandparenthood.” Furthermore, “they introduce children at a very young age to the library and what we can offer,” she says. “We’re interested [in] studies showing that it helps with literacy, and we want them to come back, pick up books, and read.”

The benefits can extend into childhood. “When the child begins to get familiar with signing, they are better able to associate signs with their spoken word meaning, therefore allowing them to better develop language,” writes Tiffany M. Alt in “The Effectiveness of Using Sign Language to Enhance the Development of Early Language in Infants with Normal Hearing,” published in West Virginia University’s Speech Pathology and Audiology Capstone Anthology. A 2007 study that Alt cites found that children who used sign language as babies had higher scores on IQ tests when they were eight years old. In addition, Alt writes, “the use of the fingers to make certain signs and shapes on the hands helps improve the child’s hand-eye coordination.”

Some researchers caution that infant sign language studies have methodological weaknesses. But educators on the ground witness benefits—and a high demand. Debbie Stylinsky teaches baby sign language at the Twinsburg (OH) Public Library and the Brooklyn Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in northeast Ohio. Her two eight-week sessions are so popular that she started classes for babies and kids up through 12th grade. Also an ASL interpreter, Stylinsky became interested when “I was teaching my grandchildren how to sign basic things. We noticed that the whining almost stopped and the frustration level was gone,” she says. “My grandson’s first sentence was ‘eat more please’ before he was two.” Teaching since 2009, Stylinsky’s curriculum is based on Garcia’s work and her own experience.

White leads a group baby sign language session.
Photo courtesy of Sheryl White

At the Rose Garden Library in San Jose, CA, Michelle Kaelker-Boor volunteers to teach baby sign language twice a month. Launched in September 2013, her program was initially based on videos; as it has evolved, Kaelker-Boor has added songs and a story pertaining to a weekly theme. Her classes average between 30 and 40 people. While many are infants up to three-year-olds, grandparents and older siblings often participate. When her daughter was eight months old, Kaelker-Boor began learning ASL as a hobby—and asked her library’s storytime leader if he would consider incorporating baby sign language. He was interested—but didn’t know the language. “I [had been] in the business world as a corporate trainer,” says Kaelker-Boor. “I thought, ‘I was a trainer for adults, so I might be able to translate that to children.’ ” Her daughter is now five, and Kaelker-Boor still teaches as a way to “pay it forward” to her community.

Kelly Rosofsky’s daughter
Leigh signs the word flower.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Rosofsky

Beyond babies

This method of communicating may have benefits beyond babyhood. “Seeing Language: The Effect of Sign Language on Vocabulary Development in Young Hearing Children,” a study by Marilyn Daniels, tracked a class for two years, from pre-K to the end of kindergarten. “The results indicate that the statistically significant vocabulary gains made in their prekindergarten year sustain throughout their kindergarten year and remain with them,” according to the abstract.

At library storytimes and events, “a lot of times in groups of moms and kids, it can get loud,” says Kaelker-Boor. “If your kid can’t hear well, they can watch you to see signs.” With older kids, “you can sign to teenagers to say ‘I love you’ without embarrassing them,” she suggests. “Even when kids are older and verbal and have words they can use, they can get so overwhelmed by emotions that they can’t get the words out. I’ve found that signing breaks up that mode to start a conversation.”

“I’d love to make it bigger and do more in the future,” says Kaelker-Boor. “I don’t see it going away as a fad.”

What’s not to like? There appear to be no drawbacks to teaching sign language to babies, or even older kids. Librarians, parents, and teachers agree that it’s a fun, helpful way to bond with children.

Carly Okyle teaches creative writing and journalism for the Adapt Community Network in New York and has written for,, and

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My favorite adult sign language hack is to used the "all done" sign across the room at a party to tell my spouse when I am ready to go home.

Posted : Aug 03, 2017 05:51



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