Baby Sign Language- What’s the Deal?

When I was pregnant with Ian, I did a lot of reading about baby sign language.  I had friends who had done sign language with their kids and swore that it was an extremely useful tool for aiding in communication.  It made sense to me- babies and young toddlers can’t talk, but they still have needs to be met.  If you don’t have to guess at their needs, the frustration level all around should go down.  Makes sense in theory, but does it really work?

The short answer… yes.

So you might be wondering- how?!  How do I go about teaching this little baby (who can barely sit upright) how to sign?  And is it worth it?

I’ll start with answering the “is it worth it?” question.  Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!  I won’t say that our ability to communicate with sign language eliminated all of our melt downs, but it has made them easier to manage.  If we could get Ian to calm down enough to have a “conversation”, we could generally get him to use his sign language to help explain what he wants.  Since Ian’s my first, and I don’t have experience with a kid who doesn’t do sign language, I can’t really tell you that this is the only way or even the best way.  But it worked for us.

So now to the how.  There are tons of great (free!) resources online to help learn sign language.  Whenever I want to teach Ian a new word, but I don’t know the sign, I look it up.  My first site of choice is always www.babysignlanguage.com.  They have a list of “starter” signs which are great starting points if you’re wondering what in the heck to teach your kid first.  But they also have a pretty extensive dictionary.  All of the signs have pictures and most have videos.  So it does make it pretty easy if you’re willing to actually do that initial research!

I initially had all these grand plans of flash cards and baby books and videos… etc to share with Ian to facilitate teaching him sign language.  But I found that I really didn’t need any of it.  Consistent exposure to the signs was all that was required.  I started signing to him when he was maybe a few months old, using just one or two signs to start.  First priority was “milk” and second was “more”- those seemed like fairly important signs since all he did at that age was eat!  He was too small to sign back, but I was hoping he’d start to learn the association, and that this might help later on as we continued sign language.  Finally, at about 8 or 9 months old, Ian started signing back!  It was really exciting to see his little hands move to “tell” me what he wanted.  As he got those first signs down, I slowly started introducing more.  I tried to limit my initial signs to “needs” (eat, drink, etc) since I figured these would be the main tantrum causes.  But it was also fun to introduce other signs, like cat, dog, and car, so we could communicate about other things that were part of our day.  And of course we had to throw in mommy and daddy!

Since my husband and I work full time, we were extremely fortunate that our day care center also teaches sign language.  Getting some type of sign language instruction at home and at “school” really helped cement the gestures and concepts into his mind.  We could have still managed without having day care involved, but it definitely helped grow his catalogue of signs.  In fact, there’s some days when he comes home and teaches us new signs!

Now, at almost 20 months, we’re working on speaking more and signing less, but I do find that signing helps bridge the gap between the word and its meaning.  For example, if we want him to say the word please, we speak it, sign it, and then ask him to repeat.  If he does just the sign, we speak it again, and wait for him to repeat.  Eventually, he speaks it.  We’ve been working on it for a few months now, and we are noticing that his first inclination is to speak now instead of sign, except in cases where he’s unsure of the word or pronunciation.  Then he signs and speaks at the same time.  It’s pretty amazing what kids can do, isn’t it?!

Do you do sign language with your little one(s)?  Did you find it helped in any way?

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9 thoughts on “Baby Sign Language- What’s the Deal?

  1. Dory says:

    At 4 months old, we started signing “Mommy loves you” and “Daddy loves you,” just for fun. At 6 months old, we started signing “more” when we were eating solids. We have also now introduced “milk.” Now, they will get excited when we make their hands sign “more,” which I hope is the first stop. I can’t wait to see them sign back to us!

    • How fun!! It sounds like you guys are on the path- before you know it they will be signing back! It is really amazing how much they absorb and how quickly; I’m in awe of my son every single day.

  2. Interesting read. I never really thought to do it and while we’ve been lucky with minimal melt downs, sometimes I wish my daughter could explain her wants.

  3. I tried this with my first child. I got all the books and tried hard. But I found it actually stunted his speech. Instead of actually saying milk, which he had every capability to do so, he would sign. I think it really depends on the child whether or not it helps.

    • Good point, and I agree that it does depend on the child. I haven’t particularly noticed delayed speech, but I did notice he was much more willing to sign than speak at first. Once we got over that hump, though, I think it’s helped him pick up new speaking words more quickly. But we shall see if/when baby #2 comes around we have the same experience and success!

      • I hope you do too. We haven’t signed with my daughter, she will be a year old. I am curious to see if there is much of a difference in speech development 🙂

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