I’m a huge fan of using Baby Sign, or modified sign language, to help babies communicate with you successfully before they can speak. For us, it reduced the frustrated you-don’t-understand-what-I-want crying by about 80%.
My daughters, M and J, started using single signs to communicate their needs at the age of 7 months, so my recommendation is to start sign at birth, to get the parents into the habit, if nothing else. I honestly think any time before school-age is fine to start signing. I didn’t get around to it until age 5 months.
It makes life easier!
Infants are ready to communicate well before they have enough control over their vocal tract to produce words. I think most parents have been surprised to discover how much language babies can understand well before they begin to speak. Using Baby Sign allows extremely young children to communicate their needs in a way the adults around them can understand and respond to, cutting down on crying and frustration. There are some studies that indicate that infants exposed to Baby Sign have higher IQs than control subjects, speak earlier, and have larger vocabularies. However, it may simply be that the kind of parents who adopt Baby Sign are the kind who read more to their kids and consistently encourage language development in other ways too.
Do I need to know Sign Language?
No. American Sign Language (ASL) is a fully fledged language that uses hand gestures and facial expressions in the same way that English uses vowels, consonants and intonation. Baby Sign consists of some words from ASL without any of its grammar, and you’ll only learn these words. Unless you expose your child to ASL, your Baby Signing child will not be learning to communicate with the American or Canadian Deaf community in any meaningful way. I presume that there are other Baby Sign systems derived from the sign languages of other parts of the world, but I know nothing about them.
Starting Baby Sign is easy.
Pick one or two signs to learn, and use them consistently whenever you (or other caregivers) say the word. “Milk,” “eat/food”, “drink” and “more” are great starter words.
You can add more words once your child starts signing back. It’s never too early, and never too late. The benefits are most tangible before your child starts speaking, or when they have a very small vocabulary. You don’t even have to use signs from ASL or Baby Sign books. Make something up and use it consistently within your family. As long as you’re consistent, your child will learn the sign.
It may be a couple of months before you see your child make a sign. Don’t give up! Remember that they’re hearing English for nearly a year before they say a word. Once they are about a year old, they will probably consider it a game to learn new signs.
Show me the signs!
I had a leg up because I took ASL classes in college and grad school and had Deaf friends, but I’ve found a number of resources other people have found helpful.
- Baby Einstein’s My First Signs DVD. My girls continued to pick up new signs from it through age two even though they already had English, Bengali or Spanish words for them. Of course, M and J’s signs looked nothing like the ones modeled on the DVD, but their daycare teacher and I understood them, as did Sissy, which is what mattered. Plus, they just loved the DVD and fell over laughing at some of the puppet shows.
- Sign with your Baby by Joseph Garcia. It takes a little work to learn the code used in the glossary of signs, but it’s got a great how-to on introducing new signs, combining signs, and just keeping it up.
- Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. It’s a longer book, but the glossary is very accessible and pretty extensive. It’s good for arming yourself with information about why Baby Sign is beneficial if you’ve got any nay-sayers who need convincing.
- Baby Signing for Dummies by Jennifer Watson. This is an easy read, with great illustrations of 150 basic signs, which is more than most families need.
- A helpful website is http://www.babies-and-sign-language.com/. This site has a great video dictionary as well as pointers on getting started and a discussion of how Baby Sign differs from American Sign Language.
- http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/concepts.htm is a list of 100 common signs. Each link takes you to an active demonstration of the sign. The site belongs to a professor of ASL.
In case it’s relevant to someone, here’s the vocabulary list I used:
We started at 5 months with:
At 6 months we added:
By 12 months:
- Cereal (M used this one for the first time after she’d been saying the English “cereal” for 4 months! I think it was because Daddy was home from Iraq for a couple of weeks and didn’t understand her, and she was hoping he’d get the sign.)
- Drink (J used to think this one was funny and started giggling every time she used it. I have no idea why.)
- Where is it?/Where’d it go. (My girls always said “Go?” when they used this one)
In the video below, M and J are 16 months old. No, they still haven’t learned how to sit still at home. These days, they have to save up that effort for school. Note that even while the girls are signing “Baby” at my request, J uses her sign for “Gentle” to tell me what she knows about babies.
What do you think of Baby Sign? Did it work for you? Would you consider trying it out?