OK, is your baby saying “dog”? Or is it “Dad”? And how do you know if they’re trying to tell you they want more mashed sweet potato or want to get down from their high chair? Trying to decipher your baby’s first words and early communication cues can be tricky. Enter baby sign language:
Why should I teach my baby to sign?
Baby sign language can encourage babies to communicate, as well as improve parents’ ability to understand what their tots are trying to say, says Lee Ann Steyns, owner of Signing Babies, a Vancouver-based company that teaches baby sign language.
One of the biggest benefits is the possibility of fewer frustration-related crying jags. “Using sign language before they speak can dial down your baby’s frustration and dial up their confidence that you will listen and respond,” says Steyns. “Many parents report fewer temper tantrums in older babies who sign,” she says.
Learning sign language can give parents a confidence boost, too, especially first-time moms and dads. “Sign language can create a framework for how you go about your daily routines and help you feel like you’re guiding communication instead of just rolling with the punches,” says Steyns. In addition to helping you better understand each other, learning baby signs can also help with your baby’s developing motor skills and may even boost IQ.
What exactly is baby sign language?
Baby signs are often based on American Sign Language (ASL), but some may teach a variation on it. The focus is on keywords that are central to your baby’s world (think “milk,” “up” and “done”) and very basic, without any of the advanced grammar or other body language nuances of full nonverbal speech. That said, babies who learn basic sign language can build on this as older kids, says Steyns.
There’s a misconception that babies who sign are somehow stalled when it comes to verbal communication. “The research is absolutely the opposite,” says Steyns. “Many babies who learn to sign actually speak earlier.”
When should I start baby sign language?
Around six to eight months old is a great time to start teaching your baby how to sign. “Babies are typically at a developmental stage where they are curious to communicate and pay more attention to things presented to them,” says Steyns. But she recommends that parents gauge their own readiness, along with their baby’s, because signing requires learning on their part and committing to a lot of repetition of those hand signs. Some parents are eager to start when their babies are just a few months old, while others wait until their little ones are closer to a year old (and showing signs of frustration) before they begin. “It’s not too late if you wait longer than a year because then they can start combining hand signs with verbal cues,” she says.
Which signs should I start with?
Although any word that relates to your baby’s world can be helpful, there are a few that are particularly useful. “Functional signs, such as “milk” and “full,” are a great starting point,” says Steyns. “But the fun ones are actually important as well because they’re what your baby will likely be most interested in practising with you,” she says. These may include signs like “bath,” if your little one loves tub time, or “dog,” if your pooch is already your baby’s best friend.
Introduce between one and three signs at a time, repeating them often as firm statements and saying and signing the words at the same time. “Avoid using the signs as questions because this can confuse your baby,” says Steyns.
In addition to practising on your own, it may be worth signing up for an online or in-person course on baby sign language (if there’s one in your city) to ensure that you’re getting the gestures just right.
Before long (usually by 10 to 14 months), your baby will begin signing back to you. But keep in mind that, as with speech, their early versions of the words in sign language will often be a bit different at first. They may only be decipherable to you in the beginning, but that’s OK—just keep trying together.
The top 8 first baby signs
3. All done
4. Pick me up
5. Change diaper
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