(That baby above is signing “bird!”)
If you’re familiar with Rebekah’s Story, then you know my daughter was a late talker. In fact, she didn’t use any functional words (besides mama, dada, and brother) until she was 27 months old! Although most babies talk long before this, there is still a time (whether a few months or a couple years) where babies have definite ideas about what they want, but cannot yet talk well enough to express it. And that’s where Baby Sign comes in.
Baby sign was a lifesaver for us in many ways. Bekah literally could not talk when she was younger. We were told to say, “I don’t understand, use your words,” but she would just look at us in sheer frustration (I only tried it a couple times). Lots of babies start doing this by 9 months of age! They do know what they want, but they cannot physically talk yet to express it. Many learn to point and grunt, but it’s hard to know sometimes what baby really means. And sometimes they don’t have an expression for what they want at all.
When you use Baby Sign, though, your child can tell you exactly what s/he wants!
Here are some benefits:
- Reduced frustration/tantrums (since baby can make herself understood)
- Increased ability to talk (yes, really…understanding words through sign helps them understand them through speech, too)
- Increased fine motor coordination (because they have to make their hands into the signs)
- Ability to communicate wants/needs!
These are some pretty awesome benefits!
How Can My Baby Sign?
Most babies really want to sign. They are truly like little sponges, soaking up all the information around them and wanting to mimic/imitate anything they can. They also desperately want a way to make themselves understood once they know what they want. If you are willing to show them a new “trick” that will also help them get what they want, they’re totally game!
There are a few signs that some babies struggle with, especially if they start signing very young. In these cases, parents may choose to make up a sign, or to simply give baby an easier version of it.
Babies really seem to enjoy using sign language. And although a few critics have suggested that babies who sign won’t be motivated to talk, research and personal experience show the opposite to be true. Babies enjoy the communication and the “rewards” of being able to explain what they want. They’re learning to understand language, albeit in a different way. But it’s still language development, and that’s crucial to learning to speak.
As for our experience, Daniel started saying “mama” (meaningfully) at 8 months, but didn’t pick up anymore words after that. At 16 months I started to teach him Baby Sign, and within days he was starting to say all the words he’d learned to sign. After a month or so, his ability to speak and repeat words overtook his ability and interest in signing. Although now, at 19.5 months, he still does sign, he usually talks. He signs if he thinks we didn’t understand what he said!
When Can My Baby Sign? How Does He Learn?
This varies a lot, honestly. I’ve heard that babies are capable of learning some signs by the time they are 7 months old. I would say this is on the rare side, though. At this age, babies don’t have much fine motor coordination, and some aren’t even sitting up yet. It would take a lot of focus to teach a baby this young to sign, and it probably isn’t worth it. At this age, the only sign my babies could make was “milk!”
Most babies will start to sign reliably around a year, give or take a couple months. By this time they’ve got good control over their bodies. They can stand and walk well, and they’re ready to move from gross motor focus to fine motor. (The earlier focus on controlling their gross motor skills is likely why many babies don’t sign when they are younger.)
A few babies may not sign until they are a bit older, but this will depend on the baby’s personality and development. (If your baby is making no attempt to communicate by 18 months — not signing, gesturing, pointing, grunting, using some words — see your pediatrician to be evaluated for developmental delays.)
To teach a baby to sign, try this:
- Choose one sign that is important in baby’s daily life. “Milk” is often a first sign.
- Every time you say the word, make the sign. Draw baby’s attention to the sign.
- Ask the baby to make the sign, too.
- If baby struggles, use your hands to guide baby’s a few times (gently).
- Once the baby can make the sign, ask for it every time you are talking about the word.
In my experience, when teaching a baby a little over a year, it took 2 – 3 days for the baby to catch on to the first sign and use it somewhat consistently. But once the first sign was learned and the whole “idea” of signing to communicate was understood, most future signs were taught with only one try.
There are also some neat “Baby Signing Time” DVDs that many parents like to use to teach their baby signs. There are books, too. It can be fun to watch these short movies or read these little books with your baby to help him learn to sign! We used to have parties when Bekah was little (around a year) and show the Baby Signing Time videos. (She was too distracted, though, preferring instead to run around and play!)
What Signs Should I Teach?
The signs you should teach will depend on what is important in your daily life. However, here is a list of commonly taught signs:
- All done
- Thank you
Basically, you need to help baby communicate what she needs or how she is feeling. Manners are nice too!
We found that “more,” “eat,” “all done,” and “help” were very important to us. It was nice to know that they were hungry (especially when they’re toddlers, they’re so busy that they don’t slow down much, so fussiness due to hunger isn’t as obvious!). It was also nice to know whether they wanted more to eat or were all done without having them spit or throw food! “Hurt” is also nice because it’s another reason why they cry (since toddlers tend to climb and tumble a lot). If they can point to body parts, they can tell you WHERE it hurts, too. Finally, “help” was their all-purpose sign if they did not know what else to ask. They knew they could get our attention and show us what they needed if they could say “help.”
You may choose to also teach signs for particular foods, although these don’t seem to be as easy to find. “Apple,” “banana,” “cheese,” etc. can be helpful so they can tell you what they want to eat. Although many babies will lead you to the fridge or pantry and point at an item and sign “eat!”
Have you used Baby Sign with your children? How did you like it?