Signs of Illness: Can Babies Tell You When They Are Sick?

Vacaville, CA  09 September 2009

Summary: Infants and toddlers can tell their parents that they are feeling sick – even before they learn to talk. Teaching babies the American Sign Language signs for “hurt,” “hot,” and “cold” can help parents figure out what’s wrong when their child is sick or in pain.

With the H1N1 swine flu virus looming on the horizon this cold and flu season, parents of infants and toddlers are on the lookout for signs of illness.  But without the use of words, young children can’t tell their parents where it hurts. So when they are sick, parents are often in the dark. This year, child development experts, Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn are encouraging parents to prepare for cold and flu season by teaching their child how to communicate about illnesses – without the use of words.

“Babies can use their hands to communicate before they learn to talk. This means that if a baby makes the sign for “hurt” next to his neck or in front of his ear, his parents know that it’s time to take him to see his pediatrician,” Acredolo explains. “On the other hand, if he signs “hurt” next to his foot, his parents can check his shoes to see if they are the cause of the pain.”

Signs are useful for communicating about small discomforts and illnesses at home. Dominique Lannon Fiegel inArlington,VAsays “I used signs with my children and it helps a lot with illness. My son at 11 months was able to sign “hot” to say he was too hot, so we could take off layers of clothes. My daughter, now 24 months, will sign “hurt” and point to her stomach, letting me know she has a tummy ache. It also helps them understand better when someone else is sick, I can sign when daddy is sick, and they understand.”

But signs have also proven to be crucial in emergency situations. Brenda Greengold inOrlando,FLsigned with her 14-month old son but didn’t realize how important it would be until he was admitted to the emergency room for lethargy, dehydration and a high fever.

“He needed fluids through an IV, and he was not cooperating. Finally, he succumbed. It broke my heart. After a while, he started to put his two index fingers together over and over. It was the sign for hurt. We had been working on this sign just a few weeks before, but I’d never seen him actually do it. I told him that I knew it hurt and it would be over soon, but he kept making the sign. Finally I reached over to check his IV and when I lifted the sleeve of his cover-up, to my surprise, his arm was twice the size of the other arm. The fluid was not reaching his vein, but was instead pooling in his arm under the skin. Although it wasn’t life-threatening, this was making my little boy extremely uncomfortable to say the least.”

Signs can also be useful in helping children understand and participate in healthy practices such as hand-washing. “In a day care center, germs can spread quickly. “This year with the threat of swine flu, it’s especially important to teach the sign for “wash” so children can initiate hand-washing even if their teacher or a parent forgets,” says Goodwyn.  “The sign helps children take responsibility for good health practices.”

Acredolo and Goodwyn recommend that parents start now to teach health and medical signs to their babies to help them:

  • Report how they are feeling (HOT, COLD, SICK)
  • Explain where they are feeling pain (HURT)
  • Know what to expect during a visit to the doctor (HELP, DOCTOR, MEDICINE)
  • Understand when pain will end when getting an immunization (ALL DONE)
  • Communicate about health-promoting activities (WASH)

To see a video dictionary of these health and medical signs online, visit

About Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn
Dr. Acredolo and Dr. Goodwyn have conducted over 30 years of scientific research in the field of infant development. Together, they have co-authored numerous publications in leading child developmental research journals and have written three best-selling books for parents:

Baby Signs: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk

Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love

Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head-Start

They are the co-founders of Baby Signs, Inc., a company dedicated to bringing the proven benefits of signing with hearing babies to families worldwide.

Parent and Early Childhood Educator Resources:

To download this free printable health signs poster, go to:

To download this free informational flyer about health signs, go to:

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