Teaching Baby Sign Language: A Guide for New Parents
Baby sign language can help your child communicate without saying a word. Learn when and how to teach your infant to sign, plus the benefits of this new form of baby talk.
How many times have you looked at your baby — especially when he was wailing — and desperately wondered what he wanted? Like most parents, you probably resigned yourself to living with the mystery: After all, it'll be months before your child can say that he's thirsty or tired, or that he wishes you'd read him a story.
But what if there was a way the two of you could communicate much sooner?
That's the idea behind Baby Sign Language, a collection of simple gestures that children can begin learning and using well before their first birthday. It's easy to teach — and it’s seriously catching on.
The reason? 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.
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!
Ready to give it a go? Here’s everything you need to know about teaching baby sign language.
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When To Teach Baby Sign Language
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 really 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.
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How to Teach Baby Sign Language
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."
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. Adilen Figueroa, who teaches a Sign, Say, and Play class in Hartford, Connecticut, 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.
These tips can make the learning process smoother:
- Begin with just a few signs. It'll be easier for you to remember how to make them and to do them often. Start with the ones you think will be most useful, like "eat," "drink," and "more." (For some basic signs, see "Ready, Set, Sign!".)
- As you make a sign, always say the word it stands for. You want signing to be a bridge to verbal language, not to take its place. Try to also remember to make the sign every time you mention the word it signifies — consistency is key.
- Don't sign off so quickly. Children learn through repetition. So if you're asking your child if she's hungry, make the sign for "eat" several times, and pose the question in different ways: "Would you like something to eat?" "Want to eat?" and so on. If you're making the sign for an object, point to the object afterward, say its name, then repeat the process at least twice.
- Find opportunities throughout the day. If you only make the "dog" sign when your neighbor's collie trots by, your child may equate it with that dog alone. But if you also sign and say "dog" whenever Clifford is on TV or when you see a picture of a dog in a book, your child will soon learn that the gesture — and the word — stand for all dogs.
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.
Long-Term Benefits of Baby Sign Language
Baby Sign Language was invented in the early 1980s by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D., a professor of child development at California State University at Stanislaus. At the time, Dr. Acredolo's daughter, Kate, was not quite a year old, "and we noticed she was making up signs for certain objects," Dr. Goodwyn recalls. "If she saw a flower, for instance, she'd point at it, wrinkle her nose, and sniff."
Intrigued, Dr. Acredolo and Dr. Goodwyn developed Baby Signs, a formal sign language for hearing babies that includes more than 100 gestures. Some of them are from American Sign Language (or ASL, the language of the deaf); others are baby-friendly modifications.
Many parents wonder if signing make a baby talk late — or less? Dr. Acredolo and Dr. Goodwyn wondered about this, too, so before the professors released their book, Baby Signs, they conducted a major study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
They found just the opposite to be true: Babies who signed developed verbal language skills at a rate faster than average.
"We think it's partly because when a baby signs, the people around him talk to him more," Dr. Goodwyn says. "People say things like 'Oh, look, you're patting your head! Do you want a hat?' Comments like these, directed to a baby, are crucial to the child's language development."
Other preliminary findings suggest these kids develop higher IQs too, and currently, the professors are studying whether signing and the line of communication it opens can improve a baby's temperament. So far, the best evidence comes from parents like Rebecca Yoder, of Tampa. She started teaching her daughter, Lauren, to sign at 6 months and quickly noticed a difference in her behavior.
"Lauren became less tearful and less prone to tantrums," Yoder says. "If she wanted a toy that was out of reach, she was able to signal that she needed help, instead of crying and fussing. It brought us to a whole new level of closeness."