Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Baby Sign Language

As soon as I had made the decision to pursue a degree in Interdisciplinary Early Childhood Education, I began working in child care to build my resume. I worked in infant, toddler and pre-school classrooms and learned so much during my time with each age group. One main thing that stuck out right away was how many of the babies in the infant and toddler classrooms used sign language to communicate significant wants and needs. As soon as I saw this in action, I knew that I would teach my own children to sign.

"Why would you teach a hearing baby sign language?" you may ask.

A baby's receptive language (the ability to understand what others are saying) develops much faster than their expressive language (the ability to verbalize words). For obvious reasons this can get extremely frustrating (think of it as having your own mouth duct taped and then attempting to express your wants and needs to giants). Signing, however, can be picked up around the time that babies begin to clap and wave, which are meaningful hand gestures much like the signs you may teach them for anything else. Having signs, especially for common wants and needs, can give your child tools for expressive communication before they develop the physical ability to talk. This can save our ears from a lot of screaming and save your baby from a lot of frustration all while empowering them with the gift of two way communication.

A common question that I received from parents over the years was, "Won't learning sign language delay their speech?" and the answer is no! It is actually quite the opposite. "Talking and signing together flood the baby with language" and babies are sponges.  As long as care givers say the word while they sign it every time, studies show that most babies who sign actually start verbally talking sooner and typically have a wider vocabulary than their non-signing peers. This happens because they are getting to practice expressive communication sooner than they would if they waited until they could actually speak. Also, by nature, humans do what is the most efficient and in a hearing world, talking is always going to be more convenient than signing, especially if the person you are trying to communicate with has their back turned.

So, after hearing all of this, you can imagine my delight when Ayden signed or the first time last night!

We started signing to him when he was around 7 months old. You can never start too soon but he just seemed to be paying attention around that time. I knew it would be a while before he would actually do it himself, but I still wanted to model the signs for him a lot so that he'd do it as soon as he was ready. When he started clapping, waving, blowing on his food and imitating fish a couple of weeks ago, I knew the time was near and patiently waited. I was just delighted when he did it (as you can probably hear in the video)!

We started with three basic signs for eat, more and all done. In the video above you saw him attempt "more" (though it looks like his clap) and "all done." It is still a work in progress and as we keep modeling the right way to do it his attempts will become more and more successful. Now that he has made the connection, we have started modeling more signs (milk for nurse, bath, grapes, apple, drink, book, Mommy, Daddy etc) and he will pick them up as he is ready.

With sign language, or anything for that matter, babies will first learn what is most significant to them. This is why you want to choose signs for things that they want, need, or see on a regular basis. Also keep in mind that as long as you and other caregivers understand their sign attempts, there is no reason to be concerned if they don't do the specific American Sign Language (ASL) or Baby Sign Language (BSL) signs. Since Ayden's attempt at "more" looks a lot like his clap, we'll encourage him to fine tune it so that we don't find ourselves in a misunderstanding. His attempt for all done on the other hand, which is like a one-armed swipe, doesn't resemble anything else we do so that won't be a big deal to shape because we know what it means. Some folks want their babies to use proper signs, but I personally think that as long as they are understood by immediate car givers, the job is done.

I am excited where this little road takes us and am hoping to avoid at least some of our future temper tantrums that might have stemmed from frustration. I am also hoping that this helps Ayden realize that he has a voice and an ability to express his wants, needs and opinions.

And now I shall leave you with some fishy cuteness (and rail biting naughtiness) from this morning:

Have any of you tried sign language with your babies? Share stories and experiences below!



  1. I never did sign language with my first, but I will deff. do it this time around (I have a 2 month old)... I have never heard it explained like that. Thank you for sharing!

    The duck tape analogy is what really got me.

  2. We use signs in with my son. Started at 6 months to get into the habit and he was signing "more" by nine months. His was a modified version which we never stressed on correcting because it was obvious what he was signing, but we always did it correctly in case he ever picked it up. He now 19 months and still uses signs, but uses the word with it too. For instance he will sign "done" and say it at the same time. He's dropped some signs and replaced them with words, which is ok with us. He seems to be better able to communicate with us than his cousins who are close in age to him (one is 7 months older the other 6 months younger and not strong communicators). I believe introducing him to signs has really put him at an advantage as far as communication which I'm sure he appreciates as he has fewer frustrations caused by communication struggles especially at the age when he's becoming very independent and opinionated but his vocabulary isn't caught up to him.

  3. He is so cute and smart!! It sounds like he is saying "yeah" when you asked if he wanted more. Did he? Ahh I just want to give him a hug!

  4. We did baby signing here in the UK with my son and it was the biggest success! He could communicate with us at a young age and consequently we avoided a lot if the frustration tantrums. Now 3, he still occasionally uses some signs as he is talking to us without even realising he is doing it. It's wonderful - go for it!

  5. We are using 'more', 'all done', 'food', 'water' and 'milk' on a daily basis with our 10 month old. He understands them all, I would even say better than the words alone, and is using 'more', 'water' and 'all done'. But there is still a lot guessing what he wants to say, because he still doesn't sign them accurate. Like Ayden, he will kind of clap if he wants to sign 'more' and 'all done' is kind of vague too. But he is trying and we are listening/watching. In my believe, that is the key to good communication.

  6. Great post! I'm a Deaf Education/Elem. Education major so I like seeing people inform others about how great signing can be!