Our Toddler Talks with Her Hands

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Bridging the Communication Gap with Sign Language

A couple months ago, as I tried to get Valeria to bed, we flipped through a couple books, as usual, then laid down and switched the light off. Not long after that, she started to fuss. I checked her diaper, I checked that she wasn’t too warm or too cold, and I knew she wasn’t hungry.

I was at a loss, and so, it seemed, was she. Luckily, not far into her frustration, a lightbulb seemed to click on and she uttered the word she has come to adore.

“Dish” (this) she said, clapping her hands together, in the clumsy way one might expect an eleven-month-old to do.

I didn’t understand, so I asked, “Clap?” (she really liked clapping at the time) and I clapped a few times to see if that’s what she wanted.

“Dish,” was her reply – apparently I was wrong – and she tried again to get her point across, repeating one clap.

I thought hard and she got impatient, whining and repeated, “Dish, dish.”

“Book?” I ventured a guess, realizing that one clap was actually pretty close to the sign for book.

She grinned from ear to ear and started to [fake] laugh and wave her hands up and down happily. She had done it! She had successfully communicated what she wanted!

I was so overjoyed – as was she – that for the next hour in bed, we lay together, reading book after book (sort of. Mostly, we just flipped pages and pointed at pictures). After each book came to an end and we said goodbye to it, she repeated her new sign to me, excited each and every time I understood her and brought on another book for her page-flipping enjoyment.

Although I had been using the sign for ‘book’ for weeks (if not months), Valeria had never attempted it before now. What a feeling of accomplishment we both felt.

And this is how it goes with each and every new sign Valeria learns and eventually decides to use. And with every new sign, we are able to reduce the amount of frustration Vale (pronounces Valay) feels. Without words to communicate needs, desires, fears, etc, the big world of a baby/toddler must be equally exciting as it is frustrating.

At this age, toddlers are only expected to be able to say a couple words, if that, none of which would be: I, want, read, food, book, hungry, etcetera (more like mama, dada, ball, or dog – not always extremely helpful). So what’s a kid to do when you want something but you can’t ask for it?

Crying, whining, screaming, and tantruming are all viable options. I mean, wouldn’t you do the same if you, quite literally, couldn’t do anything yourself and couldn’t convey ANY of your wants and needs??

I would pitch a fit for sure.

Luckily, I thought of this before Valeria hit the age where tantrums hit an upswing, and started teaching her a few key words of sign language (adding more as we go), starting at 5 months old. It was a lot of initial effort with months of no reward, but MAN am I glad I did it!

It is one thing to understand what mom and dad are saying, but sometimes just saying ‘no’ when you don’t want something doesn’t also tell them what it is you do actually want, in place of what was offered. And so, in most cases, you would either get something you don’t want, or simply not get something you do want. The way I picture it would be like wanting a cup of water when you’re thirsty and being handed a wrench. Or a stuffed frog. Over and over 😑. It’d be enough to drive someone to…tantrum lol.

With signs, not only were we – and are we now – able to communicate better with our speech-challenged toddler, but we also effectively avoid tantrums before they begin – for the most part. Sometimes she just wants something she can’t have – like to stick her fingers in the socket, or open the lid of the salt shaker. Tough.

Valeria’s signing is always clumsy at first, but we always eventually figure out what she’s saying, repeat the sign, and they always improve with time. Between the ages of 12-14 months, Valeria had an explosion of new sign usage that could only be explained by our dedication and persistence – two things I’m glad we were able to maintain.

A useful resource now – one that I have used constantly since my husband got it for me for Christmas two or three years ago – was the American Sign Language Dictionary you see at the top of this post.

It was big enough that the explanations and directional pictures are easy to see, but small enough that I could fit it in a regular-sized purse, if need be (I carried it to work on the daily in my backpack). And the best thing is, it’s actually quite a bit cheaper to buy on Amazon than it was in the store! My husband left the price tag on it…so I know lol. I’m adding a link (click the picture) to the cheaper one being sold on Amazon here, for your convenience:


So, if you’re thinking about teaching your baby, toddler, or child sign language, I say stop thinking and start doing! It’s not nearly as hard as you think, and what a valuable life skill, even to know a few useful signs! I guarantee, when your not-verbal-enough toddler is saying please with her hand instead of pointing and screaming at what she wants (true story, this is what Valeria did before I taught her the sign for please), you will be grateful you did.

These days, the difficulty does not lie not Valeria’s inability to communicate before she’s talking, but in getting her to stop! 😂



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