What Sign Should I Use for Breastfeeding?

November 15th, 2010 by Dionna | 18 Comments
Posted in Breastfeeding/Lactivism, Compassionate Advocacy, Feed with Love and Respect, Guest Posts, Just for Fun/Miscellaneous, natural parenting

Babies and toddlers can quickly pick up sign language. Signing is a wonderful way to communicate with your pre-verbal child, and it is useful as a second language for children who can speak. Read more about signing with your little ones at “Learning Sign Language with Babies and Children” at Natural Parents Network.

If your little one breastfeeds, one of their most essential (and the sweetest) signs will surely be “nurse.” There are many ways that mamas and little ones choose to sign “nurse,” here are a few of them.

Many people just use the sign MILK to mean breastfeeding, and then later they use it to mean cow’s milk. There is not much confusion between the two, because the timing often doesn’t overlap in our culture – breastfeeding ends and then cow’s milk begins, and there is no need for the child to have to differentiate between the two with different signs, because she is not experiencing both at the same time.

In this video, a pre-crawling baby practices the “milk” sign.

But for those of us who nurse into toddlerhood, there can be confusion if you want your child to be able to differentiate between nursing and cow’s milk when signing. In our house, we just use the sign MILK to mean any milk at first, but as she gets older, we add MOMMY-MILK or COW-MILK to differentiate. There are other ways to sign nursing when you want to differentiate from milk in a cup too.

In this video, a toddler signs “milk” as she nurses.

Below are some examples of other ways you and your child can sign milk (breastmilk or cow’s milk). If you are unfamiliar with ASL, you can find a video dictionary at ASLPro.com. If you need clarification, try ASL University or a Basic Guide to ASL.

1. Use one of the ASL signs for BREASTFEED

2. Use just the sign BREAST for nursing, and the sign MILK for cow’s milk

The baby in this video is tapping her chest to show “nurse,” much like the ASL sign for breast.

3. Make a sign like FEED but start the motion just below your breast and extend it down toward the baby for nursing

4. Use the bent O hand shape (like EAT) and tap above each breast for nursing

5. Use the sign MILK for nursing, and the signs CUP-MILK for cow’s milk

6. Use the sign MILK once for any kind of milk, but sign twice (MILK-MILK) for nursing

7. Sign MILK near the breast for nursing, and sign MILK out in front of you for milk in a cup

8. Make up your own sign for breastfeeding!

This mama and baby pat their lips to show “nurse.”

This very young infant waves his fist up and down to show his mama he wants to nurse.

What sign did you (or your little one) use to mean “nurse”?

To read more about learning sign language with little ones, please head over to Natural Parents Network, where Alicia has written about the many benefits. Alicia wrote the bulk of this post too.
Alicia is a breastfeeding mother to two girls whom her husband nicknamed “Munchkin” (2006) and “Sweets” (2009). She has breastfed them both while working full-time as a bench scientist in immunology. She writes about breastfeeding at Lactation Narration, and she is particularly interested in extended breastfeeding, tandem nursing, pumping at work, nursing in public, the science of lactation, and breastfeeding advocacy.

18 Responses to:
"What Sign Should I Use for Breastfeeding?"

  1. Olivia

    We use patting the lips with an open hand, picked up from Rixa at Stand and Deliver. I started teaching it to her around 10 months old when she started lifting my shirt when she wanted to nurse. I think it took about a month before she did the sign.

  2. Casey   CBerbs

    With both of my sons we used “milk” for breastfeeding. My older son nursed until 4.5 yrs, and my younger son nursed until almost 3. They both had a long period of time where they drank both breastmilk and cow’s milk. “Milk” was always breastfeeding. “Drink” was anything in a cup. Then, I would inquire about water, cow’s milk, or something else if that was an option. I never considered it a problem.

  3. Any sign will do but if you do make up a sign make sure it does not involve any fine motor skills which your baby will not be able to replicate. ASL signs are great to use as a basis for baby signing but remember that ASL was not intended for little baby hands, but adult hands with full use of all the motor skills (fine and gross.)
    Its also important to share with anyone who might be caring for your baby, what each signs means, especially if you’re deviating from the usual baby sign vocabulary!

  4. Semi-Crunchy Mama   crunchymamato2

    Great post. Love the videos. My daughter made up her own sign for nursing and I thought it was the cutest thing ever. We’ve been using “milk” here lately, but I like the idea of differentiating it later.

  5. Sheila   agiftuniverse

    My little brother was taught the ASL for “nurse” (both fists against the chest, above the breasts), but his interpretation was to put his hand against his tummy, like he was pointing at his hungry belly! It was adorable.

    Haven’t done much signing with my little guy yet, so I haven’t really decided what to use.

  6. Whozat   whozat

    I was going to use “milk” but signed on the chin, like “mother” – so it meant “Mama’s milk,” but then realized that she wouldnt’ be able to sign it while nursing, because her chin would be smushed against my breast, so we just went with “milk.”

    She’s 2 now and the only cow’s milk she has is on cereal, and she’s starting to talk, so we just say “cow’s milk” to differentiate.

    (Then she signs/says “Pump pump!” because she knows the farmers “pump” the cows to get their milk out!)

  7. TopHat   TopHat8855

    We used the ASL for “breast” but we also use the English “breast.” When my 2.5 year old wants breast, she’ll say “I want breast!” or “Breast, please!” She also lets me know when her baby brother wants to nurse, “Baby sad. Wants breast.”

    I love it.

  8. I would pat my chest, which of course led to the baby thumping my front any time she wanted some of the good stuff.

    Somewhat off topic, but I let my children figure out their own words for nursing because I didn’t want anyone yelling “Boobies” or similar in public. My son went with “side” (from my saying “Other side?”) and I assumed my daughter would pick that up as he was still nursing when she became verbal – but she made up her own: “mumeet”. I’ve no idea where she got it but it amuses me greatly as a composite of Mum+eat or perhaps Mum+meat.

  9. now that d’s talking (up a storm) he likes to ask for his milkies:
    and he’ll throw is milk sign in there to pack an extra punch sometimes too.
    the sight of his little squeezey mitts signing for milk makes my heart hurt.

    cutest. ever.


  10. Deanna T.   mapleleafmommy

    We just used the ASL sign for milk. A family history of dairy allergies meant that I didn’t introduce cows milk until my daughter was two. By that time it was easy to differentiate between mommy milk and cow’s milk verbally.

    The sign for milk was the first sign they used back for both my girls. I clearly remember how excited I felt when my first child signed her first sign back to me. Those little squeezing fists sure are cute.

  11. Kathy

    We used the milk sign and the word milk for nursing. When we introduced cows milk in a cup, we called that leche, and continued to use “milk” for nursing. At my son’s daycare, they use both milk and leche, so recently we’ve started using mama’s milk, or as my son says, “mama moop,” for nursing. He’ll use either moop or leche if he wants a cup of milk.

  12. Amber   AmberStrocel

    I used milk with my kids. And I referred to breastfeeding as ‘milk’ with my daughter, and ‘nursing’ with my son. I’m not sure why the difference, but I used the same sign anyway. :)

  13. Diana Coote   onyababy

    We used the ASL sign for “milk” for both older and younger. I remember how excited we each were (daughter and me, when she was learning; son and me when he was learning) when they “got it” for the first time. It was the first sign for both of them. I suppose it’s because it’s so fundamental to them.
    Funny, like Sara posted, my daughter interpreted the spoken word “milk” as “meemee” in toddler-speak, as well. She still, at almost 4 and a half, calls breasts “meemees.” :)

  14. Jenny   mamababylove

    we use the open close sign for milk as the sign for “nursing”. pretty helpful, especially if her mouth is full and she wants more nursing sessions :) we love the signing time!! I was able to get an entire BST set at babysteals and my daughter loves them! she’s almost 3 and still signs. this is especially useful since my brother in law is deaf and my daughter enjoys being able to communicate with him. i’d love to get the ST set but it’s just too expensive.. watching out for signingtimes’ thanksgiving sale :D

  15. Great post and these videos are adorable! Sasha is 1yo and she signs for milk by patting my chest. She hasn’t quite figured out that she can also pat her own chest.

    She usually uses the more sign when she wants a drink (of water or cow milk) because she has so often requested more OF the drink.

  16. Amy   anktangle

    We use a sign we made up that’s a lot like the ASL sign for “get dressed” except the thumb is in and it’s one-handed: a flat, open hand to the top of the chest, swept downward a few times and we say “nurse” or “milk”.

    I love reading about how creative everyone is with their signs…and these videos are so precious!

  17. Lori Ann   simplyla

    Thanks for emphasizing that there’s no “one right way”! I was unsure which sign to use but didn’t find a good answer, so just went for what worked — I did the “milk” sign near my breast while smacking my lips and saying “nurse?” She picked up the smacking first, and now (7 months) still doesn’t produce the “milk” sign on her own but does get excited and calm down when I do it as a question “Do you want to nurse?”

    When she’s older and we add other liquids I’ll probably do “Mama milk” and “cup milk” — it just makes the most sense to me so it’s what I’ll remember and be consistent with!

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