How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language to enhance language development and avoid tantrums. When to start and the benefits.
When we talk about teaching baby sign language, we do not expect baby to actually be fluent and perfect in any sign language any more than we would expect baby to be fluent and perfect in verbal communication.
We are simply talking about teaching baby the gestures for certain words. We might even have modified gestures of an official sign language, and some parents even make up their own!
Teaching your baby sign language has many, many benefits.
One of the biggest benefits to teaching baby sign language is that you can avoid tantrums now and in the future.
Let’s talk about the benefits, when to get started teaching children signs, how to teach your baby, and some great resources. I will also share some stories from my own experience with my children and address concerns that baby sign language will actually ruin language development.
Benefits of Signing With Your Baby
I have already mentioned one benefit: fewer tantrums. You will find that if you teach your child certain words, tantrums will become fewer.
It also helps prevent whining. Read more about there here: How to Prevent Whining.
Some studies find that a baby who signs might allow a child to communicate several months earlier than she would if you only relied on verbal communication.
Another benefit to signing is when you have more than one child. Siblings can communicate with each other earlier when they can both sign.
When Kaitlyn was a baby, Brayden remembered all of his signs, and learned the signs Kaitlyn added beyond what he knew. He and Kaitlyn communicated with each other with signs often.
The benefits continue beyond what you might expect.
Something Kaitlyn started as a ten month old that I love is when she was done nursing on one side, she signed and says “all done.” I then switch sides. No more guess-work on if she was done or just interested in what is going on around her.
These benefits can lead to a stronger bond and less frustration. When you don’t spend your older baby months and young toddler months constantly frustrated with each other, you will naturally just be happier with each other.
Some studies suggest that babies who sign develop verbal language skills earlier and faster than average. Some even say babies who use sign language develop higher IQs.
When To Start Teaching Your Baby Sign Language
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 or gestures that she comprehends much earlier than she ever signs what you want her to.
A great age to get started in the teaching side is 5 months or older.
The age your baby will respond with signing back to you will vary based on many things, but you can expect it to happen for most around 6-8 months old.
Babies naturally start to try to communicate through motions around 6-8 months. They will wave or point to things, so they are naturally very capable in this range.
It is never too late for parents to teach baby signs.
Getting Started Teaching Your Baby Sign Language
You may love the idea of baby signs, but you aren’t really sure how to teach your baby even basic signs. I have some tips for you.
First, I would say to start as early as it seems like your little one is paying attention. Again, it is never too late! We started later with Brayden and it still worked out for us (read more about that below), but as soon as you know, act on it.
Think of words you would like to incorporate into your signs. Pick words you will use often and words that your little one will care about.
As you teach baby, show them as you say them. You want to speak and sign at the same time.
Keep things simple. Always start with easier signs and work up from there.
If you are starting with a young baby, I would start simply by coupling the sign with the word when you say it.
So as you say “please” you also gesture the sign “please.”
As your baby starts to develop fine motor skills, you can start to mold her hands in the position of the sign.
So as you say “please” you would also move baby’s hand in the motion of “please” in sign language.
At some point, your baby will start signing back to you, and even signing first.
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 my daughter 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 of how to make it.
Kaitlyn’s signs were 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 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 all at once.
Respond when your child signs back to you. If your little one makes an attempt to communicate through gestures, pay attention and respond. This reinforces that the signing works!
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. This will motivate your child to try to gesture and use this method for communicating.
Don’t underestimate your baby. Kaitlyn’s greatest love in life as far as food goes was bananas.
I wanted to teach her banana so she could communicate to me when she wanted it since she didn’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 not only learned to sign it, but signed it really well.
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 said “Dadda” for her Daddy and “Duh–Duh” for dog. So I taught her to sign “daddy”. When she was talking about her Daddy, she added the sign.
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. These would be symbolic gestures rather than official language and that is fine!
However, if she can do them as accurately as possible, there is greater chance she will be able to communicate with more people than just you.
Sign consistently if you want your child to learn quickly and consistently.
As your child gets older and capable, you can even require signing at times.
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 if your child was throwing a fit because he wanted help, you can require that he ask for help (through a sign) before you actually help (real life situation we had at our house).
Don’t worry about perfection in signing. None of my kids sign perfectly. My guess is it is like verbal pronunciation, it takes time to get it right.
Good Signs to Teach Baby
I had a few words I taught all of my little ones. They all also had individual words that I found useful for them.
Words I taught all of my babies are:
- Thank you
- All Done
For other words, think of what is helpful for your kiddo. Does she frequently want milk and throws a tantrum instead of asking for it? Teach her to sign milk.
Is your toddler ripping off her poopy diaper? She might benefit from being taught to sign poop.
Signs can be used to help aid in resolving specific issues. Here is a baby sign language chart.
Sign Language 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 called Signing Time. Brayden loved 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.
Our Baby Sign Language Experiences
I will share some of our experiences with my children and learning basic signs.
On Becoming Babywise Book Two has a chapter about doing signs with your baby. As I have said many times, I started On Becoming Babywise 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. The 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 Babywise 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 On Becoming Babywise Book Two is for ages 5-15 months, I started at about 5 months showing her signs. I believe showing earlier doesn’t hurt anything, and started signs with my next two as early as they would pay attention to what I was doing.
That is easier with subsequent children because, as time goes on, signing becomes a natural thing for the family.
At 11 months, Kaitlyn regularly signed “all done,” “more,” “banana,” “brother,” “daddy,” “drink,” and she was working on “cheese.”
It isn’t a large word list, but she was also a big talker and said 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 was not necessarily to teach a full language to them. My plan was simply to teach them the words we need to communicate more efficiently.
It can be harder to sign consistently with younger children as you have more kids. I found this to be true with McKenna.
It gets hard to have the patience to be consistent, and older siblings often give baby whatever he wants any time he fusses.
I was not as consistent with McKenna, but she still picked it up. I definitely got more motivated as her tantrums increased.
Won’t Baby Sign Language Ruin Baby Language Development?
Some parents wonder if it is good to teach baby signs or even wonder if it is bad.
I have read and also heard from people that signing will or might delay your child’s speech development since they are signing. They believe it will ruin language skills and actually delay verbal abilities.
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. Of course, two cases aren’t enough to prove nor disprove anything.
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 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.
The Signing Time website (http://www.signingtime.com/) says that studies show that typical children who learn to sign have higher IQ scores, are better adjusted, and read at an earlier age.
This is a great tool for helping you and your kiddos to communicate at a younger age and have fewer tantrums in your life. Give it a try and see what happens!
- The Screaming Non-Verbal Baby/Toddler
- Controlling the Young Temper
- Helping Your Child Speak Words
- How to Enhance Your Baby’s Language Development
This post originally appeared on this blog March 2008
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