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All About Baby Sign Language

Baby Sign Language: An Introduction
Baby Sign Language: An Introduction

"I don't know what he wants" is a common refrain from the parents of a toddler. But what if you could understand your child's desires before he could tell you in words?

Baby sign language -- teaching hearing babies and toddlers a system of gestures to communicate basic needs, such as hunger and sleepiness, as well as fun words, such as animal names -- is catching on. The reason? Parents are beginning to realize that children's proficiency in using their hands comes well before using the more intricate muscles of their tongue and vocal cords. And both parents and experts agree that signing with your baby can relieve his frustration at not being able to communicate with you (and your frustration at not being able to understand him).

"There's a lot of screaming when your child gets to be a toddler," says Soni Pahade, mom of Raina, 18 months. "Having my daughter be able to do the sign for 'more' if she wants more crackers is very helpful and calms her down. Or I'll ask, 'Do you want to go night-night?' and she'll do the sign for 'sleep' and smile."

If you're willing to spend some time learning the signs and using them every day, baby sign language can be a boon for you and your child -- not to mention fun. Researchers say it may even boost your baby's IQ. But we'll settle for fewer tears!

Experts say you can begin signing with your child as early as 6 or 7 months, but it will take at least another two to three months before you see results -- your baby signing back to you.

However, it's never too late to start -- or too early. Sarah Landis, mother of 14-month-old Amelia, has used the signs for "eat," "milk" (nursing), and "more" from when her daughter was a newborn. Landis had picked up the signs from taking her older son to baby sign language classes. "Amelia was signing by 6 months," Landis says.

You don't have to put special time aside to teach your child signs. All you have to do is make the gesture whenever you say the word in your day-to-day routines. The key is consistency and persistence on your part: Every time you give your child his bottle, say the word "milk" and do the sign for "milk."

You can find signs to use on Web sites, by taking a class, or through a book or video, such as Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo, PhD, and Susan Goodwyn, PhD.

 

Many programs use signs based on American Sign Language, the language taught to the hearing impaired. Others use made-up signs. It doesn't matter which system you use or even if you do the signs exactly as pictured. Modify them according to what works for you (kids will often come up with their own versions anyway!). The only important thing is that you and your child understand what they mean.

Will Signing Prevent My Baby from Learning to Talk?

Not at all. In fact, studies have shown that children who have been taught baby sign language have larger vocabularies by 2 years of age than children who haven't, says Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, coauthor of How Babies Talk (Penguin).

"A hearing parent who uses sign language doesn't just make the sign for 'airplane,'" says Golinkoff. "She says the word and talks about an airplane flying up in the sky. That means that the child is getting two sources of communication -- a sign with the hand and spoken words. The redundancy may be what makes the difference."

Sign language also helps reduce kids' frustration level, says Golinkoff, pointing to a Columbia University study that found that highly emotional kids speak later than other children. (The emotional energy they use may sap their intellectual energy.) "But if you lower their frustration level by teaching them signs," she says, "they may learn to talk faster and better."

Moreover, parents who use signs are spending more time with their child labeling things. That may also explain the boost in language development.

After working on the first signs for a few months, expand your baby's repertoire with signs for things that interest her. Typically toddlers will readily pick up and enjoy doing signs for objects or people they love, such as book, ball, baby, or hat, as well as pets or animals, including dog, monkey, or elephant.

Signs for Sale

Baby Sign Language Basics $9; Hay House A pocket-size guide for parents.

Sign with Your Baby $50, Northlight, sign2me.com Training video is part of a kit from baby sign language pioneer, Joseph Garcia. Also includes a book and reference guide.

Baby See 'n Sign VHS, $15; DVD, $18; Kronz Kidz, babyseensign.com Clips of babies in daily activities are mixed with an instructor demonstrating 60 (Vol. I) to over 100 signs (Vol. II).

Signing Time! VHS, $17; DVD, $22; Two Little Hands, signing time.com Siblings Alex and Leah (who's deaf) share 18 to 30 signs in each of three volumes.

Talking Hands VHS, $17; DVD, $20; Small Fry, 800-521-5311 Kids and adults act out 32 signs.

 

Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2004.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.