How To Teach Babies Sign Language

My daughter Leah was born deaf, so we taught her American Sign Language (ASL) as her first language. When she was in preschool, none of her classmates knew how to sign, and I noticed they just stayed away from her. It broke my heart! She could do everything that other children could do except hear. Although I tried to teach ASL to those around her, I could not help but notice she remained a deaf girl in a hearing world. Would she forever be excluded just because she couldn’t hear? I couldn’t change the fact that she was deaf, so I decided to try to inspire the rest of the world to learn a little ASL instead. I knew I had to find a way to make it fun, engaging, and widely accessible, so I created series of DVDs and called it “Signing Time!” With fun music, animation, and of course with the help of Leah and friends who sign, every family with a DVD player now has the opportunity to learn a little sign language.

Although sign language has obviously been both necessary and of personal benefit to my family, research and scientific studies have proven that introducing signs at an early age is beneficial for all children. Signing with 'hearing' children is a phenomenon that is truly revolutionizing parenting in America. Here are just a few developmental advantages of signing with your baby:

  • Spoken language skills emerge earlier and faster than those who did not learn signing. (No, signing will not cause a delay in speech!)
  • Your child has an early introduction to a second language (ASL) that is both fun and hands-on. (And they can make friends with children like my daughter!)
  • Before speech even develops, children are able to communicate using physical movements and fine motor skills. Signing is perfect for early communication.
  • One study shows higher IQ’s among hearing children who sign as compared to their non-signing peers.
  • When a young child uses signs to communicate needs, wants and fears earlier, misbehavior and frustration-related temper tantrums tend to decrease.
  • Cooperation is improved when children who are too young to speak are empowered with even a few signs. It’s amazing to see two young children sign to each other!
  • Signing can act as a source of fun physical activity, pride and self-esteem among children. They can name their observations and make associations in their environment.
  • Quality time and communication between parent and child is greatly enhanced when time is spent connecting face-to-face with sign language.

Are you ready to try it? It's easy - you do not have to be fluent in American Sign Language to teach your child to sign. Here are a few helpful tips to get you started signing today!

  1. Start with the basics. It’s best to start with a few easy signs. Learn signs for words you use all day, every day, like “milk”, “eat”, and “more.” You can add more signs after you master the basics.
  2. Use the sign in context every day. “Eat” and “milk” are concrete signs. Sign them whenever your baby is going to eat or have milk. When it is time to eat, sign and say “eat.” In fact, any time you say the words you are introducing, be sure to sign them too. “More” is a conceptual sign that is powerful for baby to learn. You may initially teach your baby the concept of “more” with food, like small crackers or cereal, but don’t be surprised if your baby grasps the full context and asks for “more mom,” or “more socks” after you put on one sock!
  3. Show the sign. Say the word. Repeat. Let your baby experience the sign by helping them make it with their hands. For example, in between spoonfuls of food, sign “more” as you ask, “Do you want more?” Then, take their hands and help them sign “more” as you say it again. Then, as you give them another bite of food, say and sign “more” again. Repetition is the key!

This is a totally natural process - all children begin communicating with ‘signs’ before they start talking. Think about it: when your baby first waves “bye-bye” or blows kisses, you get excited because they are showing their ability to communicate and interact with you. Just like formal signing, they are using their hands to express something, and the words follow shortly thereafter. When you enhance this natural ability by teaching your baby even just a few real ASL signs, you will give your child a real communication advantage. Whether you have a young baby, or a toddler who is already talking, signing can enhance your communication with your child. Try it! You’ll be amazed by discovering how much your little one can understand.

Rachel Coleman is the host and co-creator of Signing Time.

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Very informative article. My daughter is already teaching her 8-month old to sign even though she can hear. It has been shown this also helps in the development of language.

By Marion Cornett