Signing with Infants Part 2: Speaking Before Acting

I’ve spoken with a few parents who’ve shared that they tried to sign with their children, but that their children never really picked it up. If you are interested in signing, my best advice is to commit. Commit. Your child may not sign right away, but I think the process is valuable regardless of whether they sign back or not.


Greysen signing an non-ASL version of "help"


Keep signing as you speak certain key words. If you only learn and use a few, I’d suggest commonly used ones such as the signs for “nurse” or “milk”, “more”, “all done”, “eat”, “sleep”, and “help.”


J. Ronald Lally, Ph.D., co-director of Zero to Three, refers to the happy medium of narrating one’s actions and honoring children’s interest as “bathing” children in language. I’m not signing to her if she’s not paying attention to what I’m saying anyway. I only sign to things she is attending to. Optimal moments to communicate with infants are when we are both focusing on the same thing.


Looking for moments of joint attention when Moon and I are attending to the same thing at the same time also develops the practice of me trying to see things from my daughter’s perspective.  I am looking for what she is interested in or looking at, and thinking from her perspective in that moment.


When we are out and about, pointing out interesting things is another way to create a moment of joint attention, and is the ideal time to name and sign a word.


I am naturally a fast speaker. Too fast. Signing helps me slow down, and as an added benefit inserts a natural pause in my actions. Signing “up” before picking up my daughter helps me to be consistent in explaining what I am going to do before I do it.


I was speaking with an exasperated friend the other day, who relayed her frustrations regarding her daughter’s difficulties with communicating. I suggested that she incorporate sign language, but she expressed that the very thought of learning something new was overwhelming. Taking a sign language class may not be high on the list of priorities for many parents, but communicating using a handful of key signs may be enough for your child to communicate some important feelings, leading to empowerment and of the confidence that comes with being heard.


A few quick ways to pick up some signs that you can share with your toddlers:


  • Programs and DVDs – I first became familiar with signing while speaking with infants when I attended a workshop at a state early education conference. The program included Joseph Garcia’s DVD Signing with Baby. I liked this program because it was based on American Sign Language. It comes with a cheat sheet of sorts, with the most common signs used with infants, and it was a helpful reminder in the early stages of learning.


  • Books – I have an ASL dictionary that I used to reference fairly regularly, though it did not have many signs relevant to our daily experiences. There are also lots of books specifically for parents to use with toddlers. Some have great pictures and really relevant words. This is a great option for someone needing to learn just a few key signs.


  • We also have few children’s books of signing. Even if they are not new signs to the child, they are great reminders. I couldn’t remember the difference between “horse” and “rabbit,” and one of  Greysen’s book helped.


  • YouTube – As great as books are, seeing someone sign is a much easier way for me to learn. It’s always been easier for me to imitate and remember a sign once I’ve seen it. If you are looking on YouTube, check a couple of sources to get a consensus on an accurate sign.


  • Other online resources – In some searches a for “Bless you” when Greysen was an infant, I stumbled upon signing savvy, which is a membership site. For anyone new to signing, I think that this would be a great resource, as the videos are clear and reliable.


A partnership with a person who strives for independence, yet is at the same time so dependent on me for some things, is a relationship that needs lots and lots of communication. Whether infant or toddler, the partnership between parent and child stand to benefit from having multiple ways to express all the things we have to say to one another. I am so grateful for having a way to communicate with Greysen, and now Moon, as soon as they are capable.

10 thoughts on “Signing with Infants Part 2: Speaking Before Acting

  1. Thanks for touching on the overwhelming feelings busy mothers can have regarding this subject. I think it is important to remember that the key to signing is the communication, not necessarily making sure that you are doing the ASL sign correctly.

    My son would sometimes have a hard time learning how to manipulate his hands to do certain signs. I found that catching him doing something interesting with his hands could easily be turned into a sign. Just make sure you can remember what sign is correlated with what object or action. For example, he recently has been patting his butt with his hand to tell me that he wants to sit in a chair.

    I also found that keeping a quick reference guide near the kitchen helps to prompt me to learn and teach ASL signs for foods that he enjoys.

    1. Really good point – using ASL with infants is about learning to communicate. Once children learn that they can be understood by using their hands they may make up signs to get their point across. I have also seen many variations and approximations of any particular sign such as a child pointing their index fingers as a way of saying “more”. That being said, from the adult perspective I strongly prefer to model ASL signs rather than made up signs out of respect for ASL as a language.

      A reference in the kitchen is a great idea! Thanks for sharing! – Marisa

  2. If you haven’t seen it yet, the Signing Time and Baby Signing Time series are fantastic for teaching both parents and kids!

    1. I had not seen this series before but I just took a look. Thanks for sharing this resource! I like that the DVD’s are so centered around things that are of interest to children. Not too pricey either! Always a plus.

  3. Thank you for carrying forward this discussion! The most important thing is slowing down and connecting with your little one. Everyone learns differently so whether you use classes, DVDs, books or online resources…it’s a good thing!

    1. Yes! In person modeling and practice worked best for me. I took an ASL class at a community college. It was a great class and I learned lots. I would have loved to have taken a class geared towards parents though. These kinds of classes are wonderful in that they teach very relevant signs and many encourage your children’s attendance and thus involvement. They are not that uncommon even in our small community. I have in fact seen them offered at our former health care provider’s place.

  4. I know this is off topic but the child in the picture is not properly fitted in her car seat. The chest clip must be at armpit level and if you can pinch the straps, they are too loose. For rear facing, the straps must be below her shoulders behind her, not above. 7 out of 10 car seats have installation or fit errors, Im sure you love and care about the safety of your child, please research car seat safety and read your owner manual.

    1. Cyndi,
      Thank you for the comment. I also have a friend who is quite passionate about car seat safety and I winced when I went back to look at this picture after seeing some posts of hers. I appreciate you looking out for my little ones. A true child advocate! This photograph is from a couple of years ago and I have since learned how to buckle her in safely. Now, if only there were manuals on how to answer a 3 year old’s questions on how a baby gets into a uterus. Explaining things is my challenge as of late.

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