How many times have you looked at your baby -- especially when he was fussing or 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 and fun to teach -- and it can bring you closer to your child.
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."
In 1996, the professors released a book, Baby Signs, to wide acclaim. Nowadays, baby-signing classes are offered at hospitals and community centers nationwide. Part of the reason it's popular, though, is that no formal training is needed. The simple guide below can get you started.
It's never too early to use signs with your baby. But he'll be more likely to try them himself if he's at least 6 months old and already makes gestures on his own, like waving "bye-bye." These steps can make the learning process smoother.
Can signing make a baby talk late -- or less? Dr. Acredolo and Dr. Goodwyn wondered about this too. Before their book's release, they conducted a major study, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
In fact, 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.
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."
Want to try signing? Here are some easy gestures to start with:
Eat/HungryBring your fingertips to your lips.
Drink/ThirstyBring your thumb to your lips, as though you're about to suck it.
MoreTap your fingertips together.
Diaper/Diaper ChangePat your hips.
SleepPut hands together as though in prayer, then rest one side of your head against them.
TelephonePut your hand to your ear.
BookOpen and close your palms (as if opening and closing a hardcover).
CatTrace whiskers across your cheeks with your fingertips.
DogPant with your tongue out.
BirdTouch your index finger and thumb together by your mouth; close and open them as though they were a beak.