Using Signs, Gestures and Manual Communication with Your Baby

Stephenie GomezChild Development, Parent Routines

If I sign with my child, won’t that stop him/her from developing speech?

NO! In fact, research and experience shows that it actually helps facilitate speech in both children with typically developing speech/language skills as well as those with disorders of speech or language. Here are just 2 resources (one professional and one layman) that support this idea:

Millar, D.C., Light, J.C., & Schlosser, R.W. (2006, April). Impact of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on speech production of individuals with developmental disabilities. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 49, 248-264.

Clayton, V. (2005). Can baby sign language delay speech? Retrieved March 26, 2011, from Health – Kids and Parenting.

Reasons to use signs:

  1. use of sign has been linked to increased joint attention skills (in children WITHOUT language problems)
  2. reduces pressure to talk
  3. bypasses motor/cognitive skills needed to create speech
    -once communication is successful, go back and work on the speech
    -no matter what the child’s skills or areas of weakness, speech is always preferable to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) so if at all possible, children use speech instead
    -speech is usually more easily understood than signs especially by people unfamiliar to the child
    -it is more portable than speech generating devices and communication books
    -speech is more efficient than other AAC methods
  4. using signs to supplement speech can make both more reinforcing
  5. predictable/meaningful gestures develop around the same time as reduplicative babbling (i.e., �babababa�) which typically occurs around 6 months
    -this occurs well before the onset of first words is expected so signs can be used before the child is able to form words
  6. parents and therapists can use hand-over-hand cues and models to assist the child in learning and
    being reinforced by signs; they cannot get inside the child’s mouth to manipulate the articulators to
    form sounds/words
  7. many children begin to associate signs with particular sounds or spoken words and the signs
    become a form of touch and multi-sensory cueing

Core/Functional Vocabulary

A core or a functional vocabulary is what parents and therapists begin working on first in any modality to achieve as much communication with as little effort as possible. This is both receptive and expressive. Characteristics include a small number of words (I usually start with 5-10), high frequency words, applicable to all environments/topics, and include a variety of parts of speech. Barbara Cannon quotes Gail van Tatenhove as listing the following as the 1st 8 words she works on: all gone, help, want, mine, more, stop, that, what. The first 16 added the following: away, go, here, I, it, like, have, you. I often have the parents list a few family members (especially mom, dad), more, all done, open, help, up, down, go, eat and maybe a toy or TV show or food, etc. This is all based primarily on the child’s and family’s needs and is customized accordingly. These are the words we spend the most time working on in the first several sessions.

Websites with Sign Dictionaries
Sign Savvy (Thanks Stephenie Gomez!)
Babies and Sign Language


Banajee, M., DiCarlo, C., & Stricklin, S.B. (2003). Core vocabulary determination for toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19, 67-73.

Calandrella, A.M., & Wilcox, M.J. (2000, October). Predicting language outcomes for young
prelinguistic children with developmental delay. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing
Research, 43, 1061-1071.

Cannon, B. (n.d.). A few good words: Why core vocabulary is needed to enhance communication in
nonverbal students. Retrieved March 26, 2011.

Core Vocabulary. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2011.

Moore, B, Acredolo, L, & Goodwyn, S. (2008). Symbolic gesturing and joint attention: Partners in
facilitating verbal development. Retrieved March 26, 2011, from Baby Signs.

Seal, B. (2010, November 2). About baby signing. ASHA Leader.