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It’s true—you and your baby can learn to communicate with hand signals before the miniature human is capable of controlling their vocal cords.
Basic signs adapted from American Sign Language can be used to convey basic concepts to one another and provide another way of joyfully bonding with your child.
While this limited version of communication with your child will not guarantee the development of one of the baby geniuses you’ve read about in parenting magazines, it will prevent a good amount of infant rage as they begin attempting to convey that they really do want more carrot paste.
Learning The Basics of Signing with Your Baby
Know when your baby is ready to learn how to sign.
There’s no concern of starting too early, but there is a point at which your baby is better able to start picking up what you’re putting down.
The best benchmark is your baby’s ability to sit up without use of their hands.
At this point, they are able to begin reading and processing the concept of signing, and may even be able to start copying the signs you make.
For some babies, this will occur as early as six months.
Many babies will begin reading and using signs at around nine months old.
Look for signs your baby is already making.
Chances are, your baby has learned a sign without your intentionally teaching it – most commonly, waving hello or goodbye to people is something babies simply pick up.
If this is occurring, take it as a sign your baby will be especially receptive to sign training.
Watch for signs of increased interest by your baby.
Lots of children will begin showing interest in regular things you do.
For instance, if they start to coo or wave their arms around whenever you start running the bathwater, recognize that they are excited by the action and are trying to communicate.
Know that babies will also want to sign about things they are excited about, in addition to their more basic needs.
Take these signs of increased interest as indication that your baby will be receptive to training about how to communicate.
Pick a limited number of signs to learn first.
Before you begin attempting to teach your baby to sign, make a list of the words you would like to teach.
Shorten this list by choosing only the words or ideas that would be the most useful to be able to mutually convey to one another.
These should be the basic and most important signs, such as “eat” and “drink.
Learn signs by looking them up online.
While there are lots of sources of booklets and examples of signs that could work, the most reliable and useful are likely those inspired by American Sign Language (ASL).
Michigan State University’s online ASL database provides the necessary material to learn more words than you could possibly learn, let alone teach to your baby
You can also make up your own signs, or adapt ASL signs into simpler versions, especially for basic activities such as eating.
For instance, pinch your fingers and thumb together and touch your lips while saying “eat” to sign for eating.
Use signs in immediate proximity to an associated action.
Practice signs yourself.
Be sure you know a sign and are able to execute it clearly before using it with your baby.
Once you have it down, start using the sign in front of your baby.
Initially, the goal is simply conveying the concept that certain hand signs indicate certain things.
Right before you nurse your baby, sign “milk” – or before feeding, sign “eat.”
Sign in the air, on whatever you’re signing, or even right on the baby.
For instance, if signing “milk”, sign with your hand right in front of your breast or bottle.
Stick to simple signs.
You’ll start with the most basic and common parts of your baby’s life, most likely having to do with eating.
Expect to incorporate new signs slowly, and keep new signs simple too.
Include fun signs and signs for important humans too.
It’s especially satisfying to teach your baby a sign for “mom” or “dad.”
Know that no sign is too simple.
Even informal gestures that might not even be considered “signs” can provide a helpful way to increase communication with your baby, including simple pointing.
Be constant and consistent with your signing.
Use a sign every time the associated action is performed.
Eventually, your baby will start to use these signs as well! Don’t stop using a sign your baby has learned.
They’ll actually pick up new signs more quickly as they become familiar with the process of learning new signs.
The key to helping your baby pick up a new sign is showing them that they can get their needs met by using the sign.
Accordingly, be disciplined about always associating signs with the corresponding behavior.
Say the corresponding word out loud as you sign.
Conceptualize your signing as a physical emphasis of the word you’re speaking.
Your child will eventually transition from signing to speaking, and speaking while signing will help this transition go more smoothly.
Know that signing will not postpone or otherwise detrimentally affect your child’s verbal development in anyway.
Show your baby how to make the signs.
While teaching your baby signs, gently take their hands and help them make the sign.
This helps them learn the sign in addition to encouraging positive bonding.
For instance, if you want to teach your baby to sign “milk,” position their hands so the palms are facing each other and the thumbs are pointed upwards.
Gently manipulate their hands into fists.
Then, open their hands back up. Practice it several times.
Be patient while waiting for your baby to sign back.
It may take months for your baby to independently make a sign back at you.
However, know that a baby’s lack of signing does not mean they are not learning the meaning of the signs and words you’re saying with them.
They simply may not be able to perform the physical act of signing yet.
Know that your baby is probably trying to sign at you before they’re able to do so.
The ages at which babies are able to physically execute specific signs caries widely.
Some babies may not be able to sign until they’re a full year old – this does not indicate slow development in any way whatsoever.
Once your baby begins to sign, they will likely begin to use a flurry of different signs if you’ve been consistently associating different signs with different things.
Making Your Sign Language Training Especially Effective
Sign when your baby is paying attention.
There are certain times of the day when your baby will be especially receptive to training.
These are mealtime, during baths, and at bedtime.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, your baby will be most concerned with eating and drinking when it is very young.
Especially while your baby is nursing, use meal time to teach your baby signs.
“Milk” is a great first sign to use, because your baby will be especially motivated to learn anything that will indicate its desire for the opportunity to gulp down some nourishment.
Eating also provides a great natural opportunity to increase vocabulary, as your baby’s diet will slowly expand, offering the chance to learn new signs for new foods along the way.
Bath time offers the perfect chance to teach the sign for “toy” or “water.”
While these words aren’t associated with needs, they are among those items that will likely greatly interest your baby.
Convey excitement as you sign.
If you’re bored while your signing or convey signs without emotion or excitement, your baby is much less likely to pay attention.
In particular, make a point of acting happily when your baby begins to sign.
Even if the signs aren’t decipherable, be visibly excited whenever they’ve seemingly begun to consciously try to make their hands do certain things.
Incorporate both facial expressions and body language to convey excitement.
Use every means of expression, including the tone of your voice, to indicate that you are having fun when you are trying to communicate with you baby.
Start saying “no” to your baby.
The concept that you cannot have something is one of the harder ideas to teach to a very young human – for you as a parent and for the baby to learn.
However, it’s a vital thing to teach your child.
Particularly when your baby learns the sign for an object such as a toy and keeps using the sign all day, take the opportunity to tell them no.
Don’t worry that your saying “no” will discourage them from signing.
Your baby will not think you’re talking about their sign-making – if they know the sign means something, they will come to interpret your “no” as a denial of whatever they are signing.
Get others on board with signing.
If a babysitter or other caregiver sometimes performs actions of behaviors that you have signs for, see if they’re willing to use the sign as well, as this will boost your baby’s learning process.
Some daycares already use signing with babies that they often care for.
Beware the haters.
Some people simply don’t realize how smart babies are, and will doubt you baby’s ability to sign.
Don’t let this bother you; if they’re willing to listen, explain that at the very least, it’s fun and likely diminishes the baby’s frustration.
Don’t worry about a caregiver that doesn’t sign with your baby. This will not detrimentally affect the baby’s learning process.
Consider leaving a visual booklet of the signs you use with your baby to make it easier for a babysitter to sign too.
Understanding What to Expect
Keep expectations realistic.
Know that signing essentially provides a way for babies to express themselves.
Especially prior to the development of the verbal skills humans usually rely on to communicate, the inability to convey what you need or what you’re feeling can be incredibly frustrating.
By offering a way for your baby to communicate, you will likely reduce the distress they may otherwise feel.
Babies who sign may even have fewer crying episodes or temper tantrums.
In addition, it’s a certain fact that babies develop both an understanding of language and their physical motor skills—not to mention full operation of their hand muscles—before they are able to speak.
Don’t fall for the hype.
Stated simply: there are lots of claims made about baby sign language that are not based on anything other than the fact that a lot of websites – and companies – like to repeat the claim.
More to the point, signing with your baby has not been proven to accelerate speech development or increase your baby’s intelligence.
Further, it is unlikely that your baby will learn from signing videos, despite websites and apps that promote this idea and sell materials that purportedly teach your baby to sign.
You baby is far more likely to learn signs from your positive association of certain signs with certain things.
Don’t get spooked if your baby’s signing behavior seems to get de-railed.
Your baby may simply stop signing out of nowhere, or simply use the same sign for all sorts of things.
Babies can become entirely focused on certain things – especially the ability to execute a new physical feat like standing, that they will sometimes abandon other energy or attention demanding things like signing.
If your baby uses the same sign for different things, don’t worry about it.
In fact, this reflects a developmental process similar to that you will observe as your child begins to speak – much like using sounds that are similar before words are completely grasped.
Stay consistent with how you’re signing and they will develop a more nuanced understanding of differences between either signs or concepts that they may associate with one another at first.
Get more information on baby sign language.
There are plenty of sources of information online that cover how to learn and teach ASL to your baby, as well as more commercially-motivated organizations that sell materials as well.
Default to the freely available information provided by organizations who base their materials off of American Sign Language website.