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Why you need Baby Sign Language

Mimi Vance

Why you need baby sign language in your life.

“Baby Sign Language class?  Yes, I’ll go with you.  See you soon!” Carol hung up the phone with her daughter-in-law.   “Baby Sign Language? What in the world?” she wondered to herself as she finished her packing.  The San Francisco grandmother was in a hurry to get to the airport. 

Baby sign language is the use of American Sign Language signs to represent words so that baby can “talk” before they learn to speak.  This phenomenal tool for supporting early language has been around for over two decades, but it is still a mystery to some.  

To start, parents learn signs for words that their little ones can use.  “Milk” and “eat” are a good place to begin.  These are basic needs – things children would tell you they want or ask for if they could speak.  Mom and dad use the signs for those things when they speak to their baby. Baby eventually catches on and begins to sign independently.

“My grandson isn’t deaf.  Why are they going to baby sign language class?” Carol wondered as she inched her way through airport security.

Why baby sign language?

Humans are wired for language.  We need connection.  Language is a primary means of connection.  Baby sign language provides signs to stand in for words until the complicated vocal skills of human speech become possible for babies. Signing with babies is not a replacement for language.  It’s an enhancement.  Using baby sign language is part of creating a language-rich environment for your child.  

Early childhood is a time of helping children grow toward lifetime skills they need.  Speech is a big one. The best way to get your children to talk is to talk to them.  Sing to them, read, read, read to them.  And talk.  About anything and everything.  Let them hear as many spoken words as possible.  And while you are talking a blue streak, throw in some baby sign language signs for key words.  But don’t stop talking – always say the word for the sign you are making.

Receptive language – the ability to recognize and understand language, happens before expressive language – the ability to produce language.  Your baby understands quite a lot of what you are telling them at an early age, and their skills grow at a very fast rate.  The ability to express themselves comes much later if spoken language is the only means of expression.  With baby signs, expression is available earlier.  

How do you do it? 

Start with a few signs.  A handful of first words are “milk,” “eat,” “more,” “all done,” and “ouch/hurt.”  Learn the signs and start using them during your day.  Frankly, this may be the hardest part – the getting started.  Learning the signs isn’t hard.  Remembering to use signs frequently and consistently takes some practice.  The good news is that the routine and repetition of the life of little babies will give you many opportunities. Sign in context as much as possible – when you feed, when you play, when you read.  Keep working on it.  Sign when you speak, speak when you sign.

Sitting at the gate waiting for her flight to Houston, the San Francisco grandmother amused herself by people watching.  It wasn’t long before she saw a father and son in the seats off to her right.  The child was probably about 15 months old, a few months older than her own grandson.  The father was talking to the boy, and the boy was doing something with his hands.  Then the father was doing something with his hands, too.  Were they signing?  She watched, for a while, and realized the boy was not deaf, nor was the father.  But they were using signs.  

So which signs do you need to learn and use? 

Try to put yourself in your baby’s (tiny, adorable) shoes. What are they likely to want to ask you or tell you?  Basic needs (milk, eat) are very easy to demonstrate, and something your baby will want.  Daily routine signs, like bath and sleep. Find signs for things that your baby likes and thinks are fun, such as a ball, a plush animal friend, or going outside, or to the park.  Signs for common courtesy (please and thank you) are also quite useful.  If you want your child to have the habit of saying please and thank you, you’ll get a head start if you start them with signs.

Carol eventually made her way over and gently inquired.  “Yes,” said the father, “we’re using baby sign language.”  He explained how the signs helped his son communicate.  The little boy was unhappy because his mother had left them to go get food.  The boy heard him mention “mother”, and held his open hand up to his face and touched his chin with his thumb.  “Mama” the dad spoke, and made the same sign, has gone to get us some food!”  He pinched his thumb and fingers together and touched the fingertips to his lips.  The boy mimicked the same sign, “yes, food!” said the dad.  The boy signed again – what our grandmother now understood was the sign for mother.  “Yes, Mama is coming back soon.  We just need to wait for her.”  Together they held their hands palm up and wiggled their fingers – “wait,” confirmed the dad.  The little boy then held his hands together, and then opened them up.  “A book?” asked the dad.  Sure!  The boy climbed into his dad’s lap as the grandmother’s flight was called.  She left them absorbed in a book, waiting for mom to return.


When to start signing? 

Six months old is a good starting age for babies, but parents should start whenever they can.  Anytime before baby is fully talking is good. How long to keep signing? The transition from sign language to spoken language is a natural progression.   As children learn to talk and expand their vocabularies, they will begin to drop signs in favor of speech, which is eventually the easier means of communication for hearing children.  As children speak more, their parents tend to sign less – whether by active consideration, or just naturally.   Parents who want to continue using sign language with their children will have to keep up their signing. 

Does it work?

Research and, probably more importantly – parental experience have shown that these signs are extremely helpful.  For some, the word “miraculous” is tossed around.

A few days later, our San Francisco grandmother joined her grandson and his mom at baby sign language class.  She was so excited to share her story, and to jump on board with learning the signs her grandson was learning.  She had seen it work in real life.  Communication, understanding, calming.  This grandmother had joined the ranks of parents and grandparents who understand how even a few signs can be very helpful to a child who isn’t yet able to talk.

A handful of tips for baby sign language:

• Focus on words your child is likely to want to say to you.  Basic needs, daily routines, favorite animals or toys are helpful early signs.

• Always say the word as you sign it – reinforcing, not replacing language.

Be patient.  It takes a while for most babies to catch on to the correlation between signs and what they represent.  Look for receptive language first.  

Repetition.  The key to success with language – spoken and signed – is repetition.  Repetition.  Did I mention repetition?

• Let the baby figure out how to sign.  Letting them use their own hands – in whatever way they can – is also helpful to the fine and gross motor skills they are developing.  You’ll have to train your eyes to recognize early signs from baby hands, but they will train you soon enough!

For more information, visit http://www.wordsbythehandful.com

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