Baby Talk: The Benefits of Teaching Your Infant to Sign
When my first was around 18 months old, she used to amuse my friends by having conversations, even arguments, with me in baby sign language.
"More cookie, please!"
"Cookies all done."
"More cookie, mommy!!"
"All done. Eat apple!"
"No apple. Eat cookie. Eat cracker."
If you have ever wondered what your baby is thinking, then baby signing might be for you. I have signed, with varying degrees of success, with all three of my little ones. Whether you just introduce a few baby signs or learn and teach signing as a second language, signing with infants can be a fun way to kick-start communication.
Imagine the frustration of being an infant with a growing awareness but few ways of communicating your needs beyond pointing or crying. Baby signing gives babies a way to express themselves with specificity. Signing builds confidence, reduces tantrums, and can help parents and infants bond.
Some parents worry about signing causing a speech delay. Like introducing any other language, there may be a slight, initial delay...followed by perfectly normal development or even a verbal advantage. Words in any language, including sign language, count developmentally. That means that if your young toddler signs and says milk, he actually knows two words. If you continue with signing as an actual language beyond baby signs, your child will also gain all of the benefits of learning a second language.
Here are some tips that help us:
- Be consistent. Concentrate on one or two signs at a time and use them as often as possible. Babies learn the signs they need first. Milk is always a good place to start and can stand in for breastfeeding or a bottle.
- Make it fun. Use signs while singing songs or using books. Baby Signing Time is one of my favorite sources for fun materials.
- Mix it up. Children need to use words in multiple contexts when acquiring language. I have found that my kids absorb all of the signing exposure but may not reveal they "get it" until there is a need. For example, my daughter did not sign "eat" until I said, "Please, go tell Daddy it is time to eat."
- Be flexible. If your goal is to just have a way for your child to communicate, it does not really matter if he uses a standard sign or invents his own. My eldest son misheard "crackers" as clappers; he would clap when he wanted crackers.
Because babies don't really use signs until 9 or 10 months or later, some parents feel like the window of usefulness of baby signs is too small to matter. In my experience, even a highly verbal older toddler may have trouble using his words when frustrated. Signs help reduce frustration and tantrums during a challenging time. Signing is a sanity saver!
The only downside is that kids are a lot harder to ignore once they know you understand them. When I was busy and trying to delay a nursing session, my then-infant son pulled my face towards him, made sure I was looking, and then determinedly signed milk. Try to ignore that, mama.