When little Titus was 12 mos. old, he finally started signing to me! I was so excited when I saw his little hands form together to tell me “more”!
Signing with a baby is so important to me. I taught signing to Jada and Titus as infants, and I plan on teaching baby Xia when she is old enough as well.
At 10 mos. old Jada was able to tell me when she was hungry, when she wanted milk, when she wanted something (please), when she needed help (leading to a lot less frustration!), and when she wanted more of something. Imagine being able to empower your baby with the gift of communication!
No more crying for their needs, no more whining for their wants. No more frustration on your part or theirs due to lack of understanding. I’m telling you, it is wonderful being able to communicate to your child before he develops verbal speech.
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Baby sign language is similar, though not identical, to American Sign Language.
It was first invented in the early 1980s by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D. Acredolo was a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis.
In working with Susan Goodwyn Ph.D. a professor of child development, Acredelo noticed that her infant daughter would make up her own signs or various objects.
Acredolo and Goodwyn soon developed Baby Signs, a formal sign language for hearing babies with more than 100 gestures. Some of these gestures copy American Sign Language gestures while others are modifications that are easier for babies to get the hang of.
You can always use American Sign Language with your baby, but since it’s a complete language with its own complex word order rules and system of grammar, you might find Baby Sign Language is easier to teach.
One of the myths of teaching babies sign language is that they will not develop verbal language skills. But studies have shown, and I can tell you from personal experience, that this is far from the truth!
One reason why teaching baby sign language does not lead to later language acquisition is that when a baby signs, the people around him are more likely to talk to him in response. They feel as though they can communicate with the baby more easily, and as a result, do.
There are many proven benefits to teaching your baby sign language.
Baby’s who sign (generally):
- Speak earlier than non-signing babies
- Experience less frustration – less tantrums and tears
- Are much happier babies
- Develop significantly larger vocabularies
- Become better readers
- Have IQs that are at least 10-12 pts. higher
- Show more advanced language skills
My favorite benefit of teaching baby sign language? It dramatically reduces the crying and frustration. When a baby wants a toy that is out of reach, for example, he can sign the word for “help” or “toy” instead of crying or fussing.
You may not totally be able to laminate tantrums, but it can help minimize them for sure!
The recommended age to begin teaching babies to sign is around 8 months. Some children do pick it up this early. Others may take a few months, but believe me, if you continue teaching they will begin to copy your motions and associate them with their meaning.
Some experts even recommend that you begin at around four to six months old! Patience is key, though, because again, your child likely won’t start making signs on his own until he’s at least six to nine months old (or older).
Some good signs to begin with are milk and more. Others I would recommend are: drink, sleep, help, hurt, please, all done, and wet (for diapers).
Of course, these are just basic words that a baby would need to better communicate his needs to you. And you don’t have to stop there; once the baby has learned a few signs, he can begin to form sentences like, “More milk, please.”
How to Teach Baby Sign Language: 12 Tips
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There are plenty of resources out there that you can tap into to start teaching your baby sign language. Feel free to use whichever ones you’re most comfortable with – or whichever happen to be readily available to you.
There are many good resources out there to teach you some common signs. A good one that I really like is Baby Einstein: My First Signs DVD.
Here are some lesson tips to help you get started!
Teaching “milk”: When it’s time to feed a baby his milk, before you give it to him say “Milk, milk”, and show him the sign. Then as the baby begins to drink, say it again, “milk, milk”, and make sure he can see your hand signing this again.
Do this every time you give him milk! Every time you say the word “milk” show him the sign. Repetition is key.
Teaching “more”: Sit your baby down to a snack that he really enjoys, but just give him a little bit. Place the food container within the baby’s sight.
When he runs out of food, and obviously would like some more, ask him, “Do you want some more…more?” and show him the sign. The sign for “more” is just creating two O shapes with both hands, then tapping your fingertips together several times.
Give him a little more snack and say again, “More…more” showing him the sign repeatedly. Do this a few times in one sitting. Do the same thing every day. The more he sees you doing the signs, the faster he will begin to do it himself!
(Note: make sure that you don’t cause your baby to become frustrated. This will only discourage him. Don’t make him sign before you give him a snack until he has displayed the ability to do so.)
Teaching “please”: This is a good one to stop all of that undesirable whining! When the baby drops something and starts to point and whine, show him the sign for please and tell him, “Say please… please.” Keep showing him the sign and saying the word. Then take his hand and help him do the sign.
Immediately after you have made his hand do the sign, give him his desired toy, and tell him, “Good job! Please…please!” And repeat the sign again. Do this every time he whines for something, and before long he will begin signing “please” instead!
There are a few other signs that you might want to consider as you start working with your child on sign language. The following tend to be easy for kids to pick up when they’re young.
The first is “hungry,” which involves cupping your hand around your neck to make a C shape before moving it down from your neck to your stomach.
“Drink” is another easy one – it involves making a C shape with your hand, like you were holding a cup, then bringing it to your mouth as though you were drinking from it.
“Water”’s sign is made by extending your three middle fingers so they point upward, like you were indicating the number three, with your thumb and pinkie tucked down. Then, you’ll tap your index finger to your chin.
“Done” is another good one to teach if you want your child to be able to communicate that he is full without fussing about it. Put your hands up with your palms facing toward you, and turn them until your palms face out.
A few other signs to consider teaching include:
- Poop (it sounds funny but if your baby soils his diaper and wants you to know about it, this is a much easier way than having to hear him cry – or having to smell it! – first)
- Yes and No (nodding and shaking your head are both good ways to communicate these notions but combined with sign language are even more effective)
- Food and Eat
- Thank You
- You’re Welcome
- I love you
One of the best ways to teach baby sign language is to be consistent in your approach. Try to make the gesture for the chosen word whenever you say the word in your day-to-day routines.
By being consistent and persistent, your child will eventually catch on. Make sure you’re using the signs in addition to teaching aloud.
Otherwise, you’ll miss one of the major benefits of teaching sign language, which is earlier language acquisition. When you make a sign, always say the word that it stands for. It should serve as a bridge to verbal language – not a replacement.
Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t catch on right away. Especially if you’re starting young, it can take a few weeks for your child to pick up on the sign and begin to try it himself.
Don’t move on too quickly, either. Children learn best through repetition. If you’re asking your child whether she’s hungry, make the sign for “eat” several times, then pose the question in numerous ways.
“Want to eat?” “Are you ready to eat?” And so on. If you’re trying to teach the sign for an object, be sure to hold that object out or point to it so the baby knows exactly what you’re referring to.
Unless you already know sign language yourself, then you might feel overwhelmed by all the tips listed above – and all the potential signs you can teach to your baby.
Ditch the overwhelm – for both of you – by starting with just one or two signs at a time. Make a list of the signs you think will be most useful, like “eat,” “drink,” or “help.”
The more frequently you sign a baby, the better – that’s why it might be easier for you to start by teaching baby sign language words like “milk” or “eat,” since you’re forced to use those words several times a day.
However when it comes to teaching less-common words like dog, you might have more trouble. If you only sign the word “dog” when you see one on the street – and don’t have a dog yourself – then teaching sign language will be more challenging.
But if you sign when you see that dog on the street and when you see one in a book and when you see one on TV, you’ll be able to teach your child the sign for “dog” much easier.
Not FaceTime of course – face time. When you’re teaching baby sign language, it’s a good idea to make sure your face is front and center.
You’ve likely noticed that babies love looking at faces, so take advantage of this. Make the signs close to your face and your baby will be much more likely to notice them – and to learn them!
Similarly, if you’re signing the word for a specific object, make the sign as close to or on top of the object as possible.
This isn’t entirely necessary, but may help you stay more organized if you find that you’re having a hard time remembering to incorporate signs in your daily routine.
You can sign yourself and your baby up for a class on baby sign language – these tend to be offered by community centers, hospitals, and other community organizations.
You can also look for online resources or books that teach baby sign language. There are plenty of helpful videos out there, too!
The more people who speak the language, the better! Recruit siblings, grandparents, daycare providers, and anyone else who will be involved with your baby’s life to start signing, too.
After two or more months of teaching sign language and not seeing any kind of response from your baby, you might be wondering whether all your effort is actually worth it.
However, it’s important to be patient as you get going with this process. It takes time to learn! And even when a baby does start signing, it probably won’t be perfect right away – it will be more like sign language babbling.
Know how to acknowledge and respond to signs that are close to the signs you’re trying to teach – that way, you can keep your baby interested and motivated as long as possible.
Chances are…probably not!
In most cases, you can teach baby sign language at any time. While the best window is sometime between 8 and 12 months of age, it’s perfectly fine to start earlier as well as later.
In fact, some parents wait until after their baby has turned one to start signing, realizing it would be helpful as a way to communicate with their frustrated toddlers.
Just like other milestones, such as crawling, rolling over, and talking, the exact time when sign language will start to work will vary from baby to baby.
Be prepared, however, for signing to drop off significantly as your baby develops verbal language skills. Some babies skip the overlapping stages of talking and signing and will stop signing (seemingly overnight, in some cases) as their speech develops from about 18 months on.
You can do this yourself. You don’t have to sign yourself and baby up for some expensive baby signing class! Check out a good sign language book from the library, buy one used on ebay, look around on the internet.
The key is teaching the baby to associate the sign with the meaning of the word through repetition, and positive reinforcement!
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).