Baby Sign Language: and Toddler Signers Too {Part 5}

While I focused on signing with young babies in last week’s post, today I will share tips for beginning with older babies and toddlers. If you’re jumping into signing with a baby or toddler who is already speaking a few words (or even more), you’ll likely get to experience the fruits of your signing labor quickly! Older babies and toddlers pick up new signs much more rapidly.

baby sign toddlers

Why Sign With Toddlers?

The benefits of signing with children don’t end when speech begins. The benefits I described in my research post continue into later years, including cognitive, emotional, and language development. Additionally, when a toddler is beginning to use spoken words, they will fall back on signs when they need them- when the word they’re trying to say is too difficult to pronounce, or when they’re upset and cannot find the words to use. You can also add more signs that would be too complex for a baby to help your toddler learn and express themselves in their expanding world: feelings, manners, opposites, colors. Signing when learning these concepts adds tactile, physical and kinesthetic elements to their learning. 

We had countless opportunities to see the benefits of sign with our speaking toddler. In scenarios when he would be making a fuss about something (read: whining, crying, grunting, and other headache inducing verbal behaviors!), he would often not have the words to describe why he was upset. But, with some prompting, he found the signs to give us a window into his grumpy mind. How terrible did I feel to find out he was upset because the pavement was hot, his finger was hurt, or his book had fallen behind the furniture? I could have run through a variety of ideas about why he was fussing, but empowering him with specific language through sign was a game changer! I felt like a better parent because I was meeting his needs more quickly, and he was a happier toddler because he was able to communicate clearly! Win-win! It only got more exciting when he began to sign in sentences! Meaning, he put together two or more signs to share a more complex thought: shoes outside please! Cat shoe book (an oft-requested title was Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes)!

I also have LOVED the window that signing has given me into my toddler’s growing mind. Last week I was doing some organizing in our basement storage area, which has some exposed pipes.  I noticed that Toddler Bookworm was very interested in two pipes that run parallel across the ceiling down the length of the basement. He signed train and looked quizzically at me. Light bulb for mommy! To his eyes, those pipes looked like train tracks, and he was wondering when the train would be coming by! (Likely making a connection to our recent trip to see the overhead train track at Wegman’s!) I would have NEVER guessed that connection if not for sign. There are countless other moments of brilliance that I’ve been witness to thanks to sign. (One of my friends’ toddlers signs the words to specific songs when he wants to hear them!)

Another fun bonus is that my signers are able to communicate with other children who know sign language. Toddlers are notorious for playing “beside” their friends rather than “with” them, which is fine. But one particular friend of ours is a signing friend, and Toddler Bookworm was able to communicate with her in a way he couldn’t with other friends. It tickled me to see him interacting with her through sign! I remember clearly when he realized she understood him- she was rocking him on a patio glider chair, causing uproarious giggling between them both. The moment she stopped he quickly signed “more” and she obliged, with equal mirth!

Signing Ideas

Toddlers love to show off and always seem to be itching for a response. Use this to your signing advantage with a positive spin. You can add some more sophisticated signing activities than possible with the youngest signers:

  • Learn signs to correspond with favorite songs and put on a show for daddy/siblings/etc. We added a few extra signs to “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” (sun and again); “The More We Get Together” is another great choice for signing. In my signing resources post, you’ll find my thoughts on the Baby Sign & Sing app as well as the Baby Signing Time video series which incorporates songs to learn sign language.
  • While reading together, incorporate questioning that is sign based.
    • For modeling and reinforcing signs you’re working on: “Where is the fish on this page? Can you find a blue fish? What’s the sign for fish?”
    • Read books with repetition to give your child lots of opportunities to practice a specific sign within a predictable text structure. I mentioned Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes earlier, and that’s a great example for this strategy, too. This is the way Toddler Bookworm learned the sign for shoes, as we signed it repeatedly every other page as we sang out Pete’s famous song.
    • Asking for recall without modeling: if your child knows the signs for specific animals, for example, in a book you’re reading “Oh! I see an animal on this page! What animal do you see?” (Child produces sign for dog, cat, and so on and you praise by signing and saying the words as they appear.)

Our Favorite Toddler Signs

At 18 months our favorite signs were waffle, window, cat, dog, bird, fish, flower, apple, banana, car, play, rain, book, shoes, ball, sleep, diaper, hot, cold, eat, and baby.

At 2 years, we added signs that required more sophisticated motor skills (water, airplane, “I love you”), signs that he was interested in (frog, turtle, boat, and countless others based on our recent activities), and signs for concepts he was learning (happy/sad, dirty/clean, sharing, gentle).

With toddler signing, you can let the child lead in countless directions. It’s exciting to see their personality emerge as they pick up and implement a variety of signs that are special to them, and allow them to communicate their brilliance to you. I beam with pride every single time my kids produce a new sign.

I’ll leave you with a quote that communicates the empowerment signing provides for kids.

Keep Signing, friends! It’s worth it!


“Before children can learn words to express themselves, they go through a period of using nonverbal devices to do the job. Why are babies motivated to engage in such communicative exchanges? Is it just because they want something? Achieving material ends is only part of the story. Babies do not communicate, or later talk, simply to get what they want. They communicate and talk because they want to share what’s on their mind. The little child desperately tries to share her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions with others. As a child’s worlds expand and she comes to understand more about events she observes or creates in the world, her motivation to share information increases. Babies want us to notice the ants that are crawling by their feet as we hustle them forward to the car. Babies want us to say the name of the bird-like thing they see moving across the sky. Babies want to hear us talk about what interests them.” (from How Babies Talk by Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek)

Resources mentioned in this post should be available at your library, or at the Amazon affiliate links provided.


Felzer, L., A multisensory reading program that really works. Teaching and Change, 1998. 5: p. 169-183

Koehler, L. and L. Loyd, Using fingerspelling/manual signs to facilitate reading and spelling, in Biennial Conference of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. 1986: Cardiff, Wales.

Daniels, M., Happy hands: The effect of ASL on hearing children’s literacy. Reading Research and Instruction, 2004. 44(1): p. 86-100.4

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