The benefits or teaching your child to use signs.

Extensive research has found that teaching your child to use signs can improve cognitive and emotional development. By using signs your child is able to communicate his wants and needs before his words have fully formed. But what are the benefits of using signs and where do you start? This week we spoke to Pauline Prinsloo, a Speech Therapist interested in special needs and early childhood development and Clamber Club Expert, to find out more about signing and using this as a communication tool with children. Here is what she had to say.

“Moms are often surprised when I tell them to introduce signs with their little ones,” says Pauline. “Won’t my child sign instead of talk? Which sign language should we learn? These are just a few of the questions and misconceptions there are about using signs as a tool to communicate basic wants and needs,” adds Pauline.

What are the speech and language milestones for each age?

By 3 months By 6 months By 9 months
  • Baby makes eye contact
  • Cries differently for different needs
  • Coos and smiles
•  Baby begins to babble with the p, b and m sounds

• Imitates sounds and facial expressions

• Participates in two-way communication

• Baby will start to use hand movements to communicate his wants and needs

By 12 months By 15 months By 18 months
• Baby will start to say one or two words such as “mama” or “dada”

• Baby will begin to imitate speech sounds

• May use 4 to 6 words

•  May imitate simple words and actions

•  Combines sounds and gestures

• Can use 20 words

• Responds to questions

How should you be using signs?

First look at the prerequisites before a child is ready to use signs. If your child can use or imitate natural gestures such as clap, point, or shake her head “no,” she is ready to start using signs. It is recommended to speak to your therapist/professional about how and what is the best way for your child to learn signs when your child has cognitive, social, speech and language and/or motor and coordination difficulties.

“It is very important that signs are used together with a verbal model,” advises Pauline. It is not to replace verbal communication, but to add to language skills. As soon as a child can use the verbal word 20 or more times you know that word is established in the child’s vocabulary. It is then time to respond to the verbal model and slowly phase the sign out by not using it and praising and acknowledging the verbal model for the desired object or activity.


Key factors to consider:

  • Is my child developmentally ready?
  • Join in on an activity that your child is already engaged in.
  • Use signs when your child is paying attention to both you and the object. This will create heightened motivation to use a particular sign.
  • Be sure to say the word and show your baby the sign before you physically assist or demand a response from your child.
  • Praise, reinforcement, and repetition is key.
  • Accept your child’s version of the sign, even if it is not perfect. Often children develop their own signs for some activities.
  • Remember to make it fun!


Benefits of signs:

  • Increased parent and toddler bond and communication.
  • Frustration levels decrease and there will be fewer tantrums.
  • Improved self-esteem for both parent and toddler.
  • Signing forces an adult to slow down and be repetitive, which is vital for your child’s language development.
  • Signing gives your child some control. It teaches them that if they sign something they will get something.
  • Speech construction may increase if there is a particular sign or motor movement to go with it.


Which signs should you be using?

Start with activities that are familiar or that your child enjoys: Move on familiar snacks and essentials: Add favourite activities and animals:
  • More/again
  • Open
  • Finished
  • Open
  • Help
  • Mine
  • Go
  • Please
  • Milk
  • Bottle
  • Eat
  • Biscuit
  • Cup
  • Juice


  • Blow (bubbles)
  • Cars
  • Play
  • Bus (you can sing and sign wheels on the bus together)
  • Ball
  • Use gestures and the sound that animals make, i.e. it’s a… cow, sign cow while making animal sound moo

As soon as the child uses the first sign consistently we move along to introduce new signs. Go according to your own child’s pace, some children can learn signs quicker than others. Let your child guide you. As soon as your child is talking spontaneously you can start reducing the use of signs.

“In my practice and with my own children I use the Tiny Handz sings,” says Pauline. “There are many other signing systems available. You can also develop some of your own if your toddler uses lots of natural gestures to communicate,” she adds.

Children have their own unique differences, however, if you are concerned about your child’s development, consult a speech therapist or pediatrician if your child is delayed in acquiring natural gestures, signs and developing language skills.


Pauline Prinsloo’s Details:

BSc. Speech Language Pathology (UCT)

Paediatric Neuro- Developmental Trained Speech Therapist

Tomatis/Solisten Level 1 Practitioner

DIR/Floortime Provider