When Naomi Martinez's son, Caleb, was a baby, she'd put him into his high chair each morning, give him a bottle, and then greet their dog as she trotted into the kitchen. "Hi, Chelsea," the Newington, Connecticut, mom would say, and then she'd wave (the universal sign for hello) and pant (a signal for dog).
Caleb isn't deaf, but Martinez hoped that using sign language like this would help her communicate with her son until he learned how to speak. One day Chelsea didn't show up at breakfast time. Caleb, then 7 months, removed the bottle from his mouth and starting panting. "When I called Chelsea and she came into the room, he squealed with excitement," Martinez recalls. "Caleb wanted our dog next to him, and he had figured out a way to express that to me."
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Babies understand words long before they can start to utter them. "Kids are beginning to connect the sound of words with what they mean by around 6 to 8 months," says Gerald W. McRoberts, Ph.D., a scientist at Haskins Laboratories, a speech-and-language research institute. Around the same time, your child is learning how to use gestures to tell you something. He might hold out his arms when he wants to be picked up or point to an object that interests him. These motions show that he's eager to communicate any way he can.
While it's never too early to introduce signs, your child is likely ready to start using them when you see him paying attention to his hands (or yours)—playing with them, bringing them to his mouth, or using them to pick up his toys.Wondering whether signing is worth the effort? Consider these benefits: Using sign language with your baby gives you a peek into his thoughts, which helps cement your bond, says Michelle Macias, M.D., chair of the section on developmental and behavioral pediatrics for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Signing may also cut down on the frustration (and tantrums) caused by your child's inability to convey his needs. And it might even make your kid smarter. Studies have found that babies who were taught to sign had a larger vocabulary at 12 months than those who weren't.
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While some parents may be concerned that teaching their baby to sign will make her less interested in speaking, studies have found the exact opposite to be true: Signing actually speeds up the process of learning to talk. "It's not intended to be a substitute for verbal-language expression but rather a bridge toward it," says Adilen Figueroa, who teaches a Sign, Say, and Play class in Hartford, Connecticut.
The progression from conversing with his hands to communicating with his mouth makes perfect sense, says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Signs: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. When a child starts to sign with his parents, they naturally tend to talk to him more. And the more words a baby hears, the faster he learns to use them.
Dr. Acredolo began the baby-sign movement during the 1980s after noticing her then-infant daughter, Kate, point to a rose in the garden, wrinkle her nose, and sniff. Kate repeated this identical action every time she spotted a flower, even if it was in a picture book or on an article of clothing. Soon Kate had invented signs for other things that she found intriguing and wanted to point out, including fish, monkeys, swings, and balls. Subsequent studies by Dr. Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D., found that most babies create some of their own signals for objects, and that discovery led them to develop baby-friendly signs for common words that parents could teach.
Think of signing as one step in the communication process: Your baby goes from comprehending that a thing equals a word or a sign, to producing the hand gestures that represent it, to articulating her first spoken word (generally sometime between 10 and 14 months). When your child displays the sign for a ball—moving her hands together so her fingertips touch, then separating them—repeat it. Then boost her vocabulary by saying, "Yes, that is a big ball. A red ball!" Research shows that when you talk about things that interest your baby, she'll learn words more easily.
Just as you start speaking to your baby long before he can talk back, you can begin using signs as soon as you like. Martinez and her husband introduced signing the day Caleb was born because they wanted it to become second nature to him.
Whichever signs you decide to teach first, they should be used in addition to speaking aloud, experts say. It's important to show the sign and say the word or phrase every time. Figueroa suggests starting with mealtime signs, since your child eats multiple times a day—and because most babies are fascinated by food as they begin to branch out into a variety of solids. "Milk" is an easy first sign for babies to learn: You open and close your fist as if you're milking a cow. When handing your baby a bottle, say, "Here's your milk" while using the symbol. "More," "sleep," "Mommy," "Daddy," and "bye-bye" are some other early signs you can try.
Don't be discouraged if your baby doesn't mimic a sign right away. You'll probably need to demonstrate it repeatedly for up to a few weeks before he picks it up. Once he does, though, watch out: He'll be telling you what he wants—and you'll need to be ready to respond.