Monday, March 24, 2008

Sign Language

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On Becoming Babywise II has a chapter about doing signs with your baby. As I have said many times, I started BW with Brayden late; he was 9 weeks old. While there were things he caught on quickly with, overall I felt like we were playing catch up until he was about 6.5 months old and everything seemed to click. At that point, I savored the moment of all of my goals being met. Signing was so far down my list that I never really got to it. He was also very verbal, and always has been.

I have a really good friend who also does Babywise with her son who is 9 months younger than Brayden. She started BW from birth and also started signing at a young age. When she started signing I thought, "I really should do that with Brayden." By that point, Brayden was about 13-14 months old and said well over 100 words. While that is a lot of words, there are far more words that were not a part of his vocabulary, including words that he needed to avoid mini-tantrums (at that time I didn't think they were mini, but now I know better :) ).

I taught him words and phrases like "all done," "milk," "drink," "more," "please," and "help." He caught on really quickly, and the words really helped him control his frustrations. He is a perfectionist and has shown that from a young age. He is the type of perfectionist that gets very frustrated if he can't get it perfect the first time he tries something. The word "help" made a huge difference for him. Instead of trying something, not getting it, then starting to cry, he would try it, not get it, start to get frustrated, then sign "help" to me. It helped for a few reasons. One is that he had a way to communicate his feelings. Another is that he had an avenue of thought and action to follow rather than just giving in to his emotions. Finally, it gave him something constructive to do. It showed him that asking for help was more productive than a fit.

With Kaitlyn, I started signing at a young age, though not as young as I could have. Since BW II is ages 5-15 months, I started at about 5 months showing her signs. I believe showing earlier doesn't hurt anything, and plan to start with my next as early as he or she pays attention to what I am doing. That will be easier with future children because at this point, signing is a natural thing for our family. At 11 months, Kaitlyn regularly signs "all done," "more," "banana," "brother," "daddy," "drink," and she is working on "cheese." It isn't a large word list, but she is also a big talker and says a lot of words, so our need for signs is not as great as it would be if she didn't speak yet.

For me, signing is just a communication bonus. It is a way for my children and me to communicate better. My goal is not necessarily to teach a full language to them. Right now, I don't plan to get into sentence structure and the like with them (not a bad idea, just not in my list of things to do). My plan is simply to teach them words we need to communicate more efficiently.

Benefits of Signing
I have already mentioned one benefit: fewer tantrums. It also helps prevent whining. Another benefit to signing is when you have more than one child. Brayden remembers all of his signs, and is learning the signs Kaitlyn adds beyond what he knows. He and Kaitlyn communicate with each other with signs.

The benefits continue beyond what you might expect. Something Kaitlyn started a few weeks ago that I love is when she is done nursing on one side, she signs and says "all done." I then switch sides. No more guess-work on if she is done or just interested in what is going on around her.

Getting Started
I recommend teaching your child signs that are meaningful to him. Choose words that will help you and your child communicate better, and also words that he will want to sign. Another strategy is to teach words that your child says but either doesn't say well or says other words that sound similar. For example, Kaitlyn says "Dadda" for her Daddy and "Duh-Duh" for dog. So when she is talking about her Daddy, she adds the sign. I plan to teach her the sign for "dog" next also.

Remember, you can start at any age, old or young. An older child will be able to acquire new signs much faster than a younger child. If you start as a young baby, your baby will likely show signals that she comprehends much earlier than she ever signs what you want her to.

If you are starting with a young baby, I would start simply by coupling the sign with the word when you say it. As your baby starts to develop fine motor skills, you can start to mold her hands in the position of the sign. At some point, your baby will start signing back, and even signing first.

If you are starting with an older child, you can expect results faster. You can show a sign, help your child sign it, and expect your child to follow suit. You can stress the sign any time your child tries to communicate it through a fit rather than the sign. If your child is capable, you can even require the sign before you move into action.

So, with a baby I just show the sign over and over. Sometimes I take my baby's hands and show her how, though mostly it is just me showing. Then they start doing it themselves at some point. As she got older, I would put her hands in the position more. I never did that with Brayden, which I think was a mistake. I think they will have an easier time making the sign if they have a better idea how to make it. Kaitlyn's signs are more accurate than Brayden's were, and I believe it is a combination of her being more of a fine-motor person than he was and also that I physically put her hands through the motions. If your goal is simply communication with your child, it won't matter how she signs the word--you could even make up your own signs. However, if she can do them as accurately as possible, there is greater chance she will be able to communicate with more than just you.

Don't underestimate your baby. Kaitlyn's greatest love in life as far as food goes is bananas. I wanted to teach her banana so she could communicate to me when she wanted it since she doesn't say it. I looked it up, and banana seemed like a hard sign for a 10 month old to me. I gave it a go, though. She signs it, and signs it really well.

Don't worry about perfection in signing. Neither of my kids sign perfectly. My guess is it is like verbal pronunciation, it takes time to get it right.

Signing Resources
You can be as simple or complex as you want with signing. You can do only a handful of words, or you can delve into the language. Here is a list of some resources:
  • There are videos and books available to teach you and your baby. I have heard some of these can be very expensive.
  • Flash cards, though for a baby, this would be more for you than the baby.
  • There is also a show on public television called Signing Time. Here is a link to the website: Brayden loves this show.
  • When I want to learn a new word (like dog), I just go to Google and type "Dog in ASL." A long list of sites that explain how to sign dog in ASL will then come up. I usually look at a few to be sure I have it right. Some sites are easier to understand than others.
  • Some libraries will have story time and signing time. The great thing about this is that it is free.
  • On Becoming Babywise II has a few signs in Appendix B.
Language Development
I have read and also heard from people that signing will or might delay your child's speech development since they are signing. I honestly do not believe that to be true.
There is no way to know when a certain baby would have learned to talk with or without sign language. The only way to judge that is to look at babies who do sign language, and those who don't, and take averages from those groups and compare averages. Even if you did that, it would be very hard to control variables. Researchers would have to take into account if the parents used baby talk or not, if they read to the child or not and how often and for how long, how often signs were done during the day, what the parent's expectations were for the signs, and whether or not words accompanied those signs, just to name a few. It is unethical to create a study that puts babies into a controlled environment. You couldn't even compare children in the same family who did signs with one baby but not another because parents change over time.
Remember my friend I mentioned that started signs very young with her son? He verbally said his first word around 9 months and started full sentences at 15 months, which is very early, especially for a boy. Brayden started signs after he already spoke close to a hundred words. He also said his first word at 9 months, and started sentences at 19 months. Still early for a boy, but if you looked at only these two cases, you could assume that sign language speeds along the spoken language.
I can see the theory--if they sign it, they don't need to say it. However, with Kaitlyn I started signs before words came along, and she said words before the she did signs. My friend's son was the same way. I think saying a word is physically easier for some than making a sign with their hands.
Also, I have read (in college) that the earlier you learn a second language, the easier it is for you to learn that language and others in the future. The more languages you learn, the easier it is to learn more. So that is a bonus if you get really into it. My husband speaks Spanish really well, and I wish I did. Then we would have Spanish Days at home where that is all we spoke. I had friends who did that growing up.
The Signing Time website ( says that studies show that typical children who learn to sign have higher IQ scores, are better adjusted, and read at an earlier age. Here is a link to an article on the website listing benefits to signing:
If you aren't convinced, watch this video:


Cathy said...

We are huge Signing Time fans here. I started teaching my triplet boys at 1 year of age, and I regret not starting when they were 6 months old. I know you mentioned that you have watched them on PBS, but also check out their regular website: and look at all they have to offer!

Although my boys are talking more now, I hope they continue to sign. I think any second language is wonderful.

aquanetor said...

Hi Val,

Thanks for sharing on this topic. I have been signing to my baby boy since birth. He is 12 months old now but still shows reluctance in signing even though his motors skills enable keep to do so. I still keep this practice of signing and anticipate the day when he will sign to me.

There are a few good signing websites I have come across with demonstration. They are:

I am pleasantly surprised that Brayden can speak more than 100 words at 13 months! I read it somewhere in your blog regarding this before. My son can only say papa, mama & bible but still, he seldom vocalises them. I have been reading to him & giving him time exploring story books since birth but his progress seems somewhat slow.

Could you share the activities you did with Brayden on training him those words?

WeeHands said...

What a wonderful post on using sign language with babies and toddlers! Brayden has one smart mama!


Sara Bingham, WeeHands Founder
Author of The Baby Signing Book
T: 1-866-746-SIGN

“There are no hands so small that they cannot make a difference in the world." - Author Unknown

Linda said...

Signing can help with potty training, too! Check out
Linda Easton
Baby Signs, Inc.

mommytogirls said...

I am a signing advocate too. I started with Emma when she was 7 months, and now at 26 months, she still uses them frequently. We speak both Spanish and English at home, and I believe that the signing has helped her with her language acquisition in both Spanish and English. I have about 50 words in my ASL vocabulary; Emma understands them all, but produces about half of them.

Now that her baby sister Isa is here, we are signing with her, too. Emma loves teaching her 4-month old sister how to "play" in the "water" and what she needs when she gets "cold" (a "towel" or "blanket"). It is so much fun to watch.

Here is an excellent site where you look up the word and it is signed for you.

Plowmanators said...

Cathy, thanks for that link. I added it to the main blog part.

Aquanetor, thanks to you too. I will add those as resouces to the main blog.

Thank you Weehands!

Thank you Linda! That is good info to have.

And thank you Mommytogirls!

Plowmanators said...

Okay, Aquanetor, I will do a full post on that topic. Thanks for the idea!

aquanetor said...

Hi Val,

I should thank you instead for your excellent blog and commitmenet in sharing your experience.

You probably would have known by now that I am your faithful reader.

In the meantime, I look forward to more great and useful blogs ahead!

John and Amanda said...

I have a (almost) 9 month old and I LOVE the Baby Signing Time DVD Gift Set (Two DVDs and Two Cds)... which is by the same woman -Rachel- who does Signing Time on PBS, but this one is geared for Babies 1st signs...

Let me first say that we are NOT big TV watchers here. I mainly use it (or the Praise Baby DVDs of Praise and Worship songs) for about 15 minutes each evening while I get Caden's dinner/bath/bed ready so we can do our bedtime routine. (Daddy works late and isn't home to help). It keeps him occupied and is educational. The great thing about Baby Signing Time is that the gift set comes with Cd's of the exact same (annoying but very catchy) songs so you can reinforce signing while in the car on the go!
The Disc One is all I use and you can select from the main menu to play the first 15 or last 15 mintues only so baby isn't watching TV all day. The first DVD teaches: hurt, eat, drink, juice, cracker, banana, cereal, milk, more, all done, diaper, potty, mom, dad, grandmom/dad, and various animals...

My little man isn't signing to me yet, but I can tell he knows what "Eat" and "All done" mean!

Jennifer said...

Our daughter is 9 months old and we have been signing with her since birth. My husband is deaf, so sign lanugage is a way of life for us. She enjoys watching us communicate through sign lanuguage. She is only signing milk at this time, but recognizes several other signs (Mom, Dad, more, please).

Plowmanators said...

Thanks Jennifer! My daughter really took off on her signing abilities shortly after nine months. Ummm...I can't remember exactly, maybe closer to 10 months?

Jennifer said...

We can't wait to see those little hands take off!! I know she is taking it all it will come out soon. Thanks!

atara said...

I think signing is a great idea. We got babytv from our cable and they do signing shows. My take on a perfectionist is a bit different from yours. I find that a perfectionist child will actually not stop until they have it correct. I find children with low tolerance levels for frustration to be the ones who have trouble per serving. Just a thought...

Plowmanators said...

Atara, I think your idea of a perfectionist isn't an actual perfectionist. It is someone who strives to do well and is willing to work hard for it. Many people view that as perfectionism.

In the Birth Order Book, Dr. Leman discusses perfectionism. He says perfectionism is not beneficial. Actuall perfectionists usually have things that are completely in chaos because they are so afraid of failure that they won't try in the first place. Those who learn to handle this perfectionism to a level where they control it, it doesn't control them, are the ones who are willing to work and work at something. I plan to do a post on his take on perfectionism some time in the future.


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