Photo by Ashley Thalman
Sign language is an effective way to help your child communicate before he is able to speak. A baby’s motor and auditory perceptual skills develop enough for speech communication around 10-12 months of age. Until then, however, babies understand much more language than they are able to verbalize. Signing with your baby can help you form a bond before your little one can speak.
You have probably seen babies wave goodbye or point to something they want. They have learned these gestures by watching and mimicking the adults in their lives. Teaching your baby sign language is as easy as repeating a gesture and saying the corresponding word when you have your baby’s attention. Once they start to catch that they can use gestures to communicate with you, they will surprise you with how quickly they learn.
Where to Start
When you first learn about teaching your child sign language, it helps to find a reputable program. Two popular techniques are Joseph Garcia’s ASL-based Sign with Your Baby and the Baby Signs program by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. These programs will provide complete instruction and a comprehensive list of signs.
In addition to the above long-established programs, a simple Google search will reveal numerous websites with online courses, downloadable flashcards and YouTube videos. There are a number of apps available for your mobile devices, or you may be lucky enough to find live classes in your with personal instruction on how to sign with your baby.
When to Start
The most common time to begin teaching your baby is between 6-9 months. You can begin earlier, but it’s best to start when you can hold your baby’s attention for at least 7-10 seconds. You can also teach your toddler to sign, especially if he is not talking very much yet.
With patience and consistent repetition, it could take your child several weeks before he makes his first sign, but once he starts using signs, you will likely find he learns quickly.
Common Signs to Start With
The program you choose will suggest different signs to start with. Common signs among programs are milk, more, eat and all done/finished. You may also want to choose signs for words you use daily in your home, such as your baby’s favorite toys, foods, people and activities. It might help you to make a list of words that describe what you do on a day-to-day basis. Your list may look something like this:
Words related to food or eating: milk, banana, apple, eat, more, all done
Daily activities: read, eat, sleep, diaper, bath
Favorite toys: ball, baby, car
Pets or favorite animals: cat, dog, fish, horse
Family members: mommy, daddy, sister, brother, grandma, grandpa
Out and about words: airplane, bird, flower, swing, car
How to Teach Your Child Signs
For younger babies, the sign for milk is a common first sign to start with. For an older child, you might want to begin with the sign for more or eat.
With the sign for milk as an example, each time you nurse or bottle feed your baby, when you have his attention, say the word milk while showing him the sign. Emphasize the word while you do the sign. Repeat this every time your baby eats. Eventually, your baby will understand and will show you the sign while he’s eating or maybe when he wants to eat!
Introduce signs for pictures you see while you are reading books. When you are outside and hear a plane overhead that has captured your baby’s attention, say the word plane and do the sign. When the family cat enters the room, teach your baby the sign for cat. Accompany a diaper change with the diaper sign. If baby is struggling to do an activity, ask if he needs assistance while showing the sign for help.
This is all there is to it. Begin with individual words. As your child’s signing vocabulary increases, he may eventually begin stringing words together.
A World of Language
I taught both of my children signs. My son’s first sign was milk, and he first used it when he was 6 or 7 months old, while he was breastfeeding. When he moved his little hand and did the sign, I was unsure at first, but when I asked him if he was signing milk, he did it again! Having a baby who could sign made our lives so much easier. He could communicate what he wanted a lot of the time, and he really had few tantrums. He didn’t speak much until he was about 2-years old, so having another way to communicate was so valuable to all of us. My daughter began speaking when she was about 9 months old, so she really did not learn or use many signs.
Sign language opens up a world of language and communication to babies that benefit families. It is simple to implement, it lowers frustration levels, and it lets you understand what’s going on in your baby’s mind. Take the time to find a program that works for you, and start signing with your baby!