Baby sign language is becoming popular in parenting circles, but does it work, asks Marchelle Abrahams.

Have you ever looked at your baby in frustration and wished there was a way you could communicate with him?
Baby sign language is fast gaining popularity in the parenting world by teaching babies and toddlers to use gestures in their non-verbal environment.

What is baby sign language?

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons

“Baby signing” is a communication tool developed by Dr Joseph Garcia in the 1980s for use with hearing, pre-verbal babies, which involves teaching them keyword signing that they use before they can talk. It is similar to normal sign language, but simplified, says Yogie Semple who has been using baby sign language at her playschool in Morningside for more than 10 years.

From what age can I teach it?

US-based parenting expert Monica Beyer has written a number of books on the topic. Her advice? Any age is good, although most parents will only begin to see results when baby is 7 months old.

How do I start?

Be consistent. Use the same sign the same way for the same action or object, Beyer advises on her blog “This will help your baby become familiar with the sign and she will be able to sign it back to you sooner.”

READ: Still a long way to go for SA Sign Langauge

Semple says the three key signs are “milk”, “eat” and “more.” Teach baby the word, show them the sign and repeat until they can mimic your actions.

What are the benefits?

The Bub Hub & Company runs a series of workshops in the greater Joburg area. Their baby sign language class, developed by Wits University and the Awethu Project, is a communication programme that helps babies develop their language skills through singing, signing and reading.

According to the programme, the benefits are:

  • Kick-start your baby’s love of language
  • Improve your baby’s language development
  • Improve baby’s IQ (by an average of 12 points)
  • Understand your baby’s frustrations
  • Avoid temper tantrums
  • Deepen the bond between parent and child

Will it mean fewer tantrums?

Durban-based mom Nazreen Majid has her hands full with two toddlers and she swears by it. “It eliminates the frustration of not knowing what my kids want,” she says.

Her daughter started signing at 16 months and her son at 18 months when they were taught at Yogie’s Play School. “They know the signs for ‘bath’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘dad’ and ‘mom’. I know exactly what they want, and there’s no frustration.”

Not convinced?

Research shows that learning to say a word requires lots of effort for baby. This is why they only learn to speak from 18 months onwards. Sign language only takes the work of nine muscles, claims Semple.

She taught her granddaughter baby sign language at 7 months. By her first birthday she knew 50 signs and could communicate with those around her. By the age of 9 she had an aptitude for language.

Semple says if children are taught basic sign language in class, it will result in a calmer school environment. “In the playground we will call a child’s name and sign ‘be careful’. It seems to have more power than the spoken word,” she adds.

For parents, it makes things easier by facilitating a two-way conversation.

Find out more

  • Signing Baby (Durban): Help your baby develop language skills and increased vocabulary through their series of work- shops. E-mail: [email protected]
  • (Johannesburg). E-mail: [email protected] or contact 081 428 3961
  • Teach Your Baby To Sign by Monica Beyer: The ultimate guide to baby sign language, with colour photos and 200 signs. Buy it online: