How To Teach Your Baby Sign Language

Learn How to Sign with Your Baby

Many parents have heard of baby sign language, but may not know why signing with babies is such a positive thing. Also, they may not know how to begin signing with their child. In this article we will look at the benefits of signing with babies and how to teach your own baby how to sign.

The main reason why signing with babies is so beneficial is because it reduces frustration. Babies are able to make simple signs long before they have the ability to produce speech. We often see babies waving bye-bye or putting their arms in the air when then want to be picked up; these are simple gestures, or signs, that babies are able to make at an early age. So it stands to reason that they could use actions to say so much more. Signing with your baby gives them the tools they need to communicate their needs to you before they can talk.

I want to share with you a story of my daughter. By the time she was ten months old, my daughter knew almost a dozen signs, mainly food signs. One day she was eating Cheerios and signing ‘more'. I'd give her more and she would throw them on the floor and sign ‘more' again. I said to her, "Then you don't want MORE… what do you want?" She looked at me and signed ‘more cheese'. I was amazed for two reasons:

  • She put together a two word sentence at ten months.
  • There was no cheese in sight. I hadn't offered her cheese during that snack time yet she was able to clearly communicate to me what she wanted.

I could imagine how frustrated she would have been if she hadn't been able to tell me what she wanted.

One of the reasons signing works so well with babies is because they tend to be visual learners. They are able to learn and retain more information when they see it as opposed to merely hearing it. With sign language, they are actually exposed to three modes of learning:

  • Visual – they see the sign being made.
  • Auditory – they hear the sign being made.
  • Kinesthetic – they feel the sign being made.

Also, we take in language on the left side of our brain as a sound and we take in sign language on the right side of our brain as an image. This gives us two places to recall one word. Neuroscientists now say that the sooner we can bridge the two hemispheres of our brain, the more ‘brain power' we are going to use. There have been PET studies that have show that signing babies use more of their brain than non-signing babies. Not to mention that signing babies are exposed to more language than non-signing babies because parents tend to pour language into them once they start signing. Parents, other adults and older children around the child tend to want to see what other signs the baby can do, and therefore he is exposed to more language stimulation.

Some parents fear that signing can delay speech, but this had no basis in fact. There is no science that demonstrates that signing will prevent your child from speaking when he or she is ready. In fact, there have been several studies that have shown that signing promotes language. Many parents report that their child's first words are often the words they already know the signs for.

Please be assured that you don't need to have any prior signing knowledge in order to sign with your baby. Because you are teaching your baby the specific sign for the specific word and not all the grammar and syntax of the language, it will be very easy to learn with your baby as you go along.

  1. Choosing ASL vs. Made-up signs. Some parents wonder if they should use American Sign Language (ASL) or make up their own signs. I always encourage parents to use proper ASL signs for a number of reasons. For one thing, you are teaching your child a real language that they could potentially use in the future. There was a recent study that actually showed babies have a preference to real languages over non-languages. Because the language already exists, you don't have to worry about ‘inventing' a sign and then remembering what you did. If you forget the sign for ‘mommy', you can easily look up the ASL sign. This helps when maintaining consistency in your teaching.

    Some people worry that ASL signs are too hard for babies but I always say, don't underestimate your baby. When my daughter was one, she loved kiwis but the sign for kiwi is finger spelled K-I-W-I. I decided to teacher her the proper sign and she was actually able to move her hands in a way that looked like KIWI (she wasn't actually spelling the word but she was trying). You can see her making this sign on this YouTube video.

    Baby learning sign languageI also believe that there is real value in teaching your child the manual alphabet. My daughter was able to sign the alphabet when she was just 15 months old, so it is within your child's grasp. It has also been proven to help students with their spelling skills as they get older. Many parents introduce their children to French or Spanish at an early age; this is no different. ASL is a real language – the fourth most used language in North America.

  2. How to begin? I recommend that parents start with 2-5 signs. This is not for the baby’s sake, but rather, for the parents. Because signing doesn't come naturally to most people, it can be challenging to maintain the practice, especially if it takes a while for your child to sign back to you. You can sign as many signs as you'd like, but make sure to always sign your 2-5 chosen signs every single time you say the word. For example, if one of your signs is ‘milk', then every time you give your baby milk, sign it as well. This will help your baby realize that your actions mean something. The signs I recommend are the following:
    • Milk
    • Mommy
    • Daddy
    • More
    • Eat/food
    • Finished
    • Help
    • Hurt
    • Any food signs.

    Pick a few of these signs and start signing!

  3. How to introduce signs into your daily routine? One of the signs that all parents use is ‘milk'. Every time you offer some to your baby, be sure to ask, "Do you want some milk?" while you make the sign for milk. It is important to always say the word when you make the sign. Remember, it is a way for your baby to communicate to you and not for you to communicate with him/her. While your baby is drinking, you can gently take her hand and squeeze it to show her how it feels to make the sign and say, "That's the sign for milk". If you forget to make the sign one day, don't worry; just pick it up the next time. However, the more consistent you are, the faster your baby will pick it up.

    To help reinforce the signs for ‘mommy' and ‘daddy', you can play a fun peek-a-boo game. Have dad hold the baby and have mom go just outside of view. Have daddy ask the baby, "Where's mommy?" using a very excited voice while making the sign for ‘mommy'. Ask this a couple of times and then have mom pop into the room and say, "Here's mommy!" while making the sign for ‘mommy'. You can also have dad move the baby's hand to make the sign mommy. Then switch roles and have mom hold the baby and ask, "Where’s daddy?" while making the sign.

  4. Try to be consistent. The more consistent you are, the faster your baby will learn the sign. If you make the sign every time you say the word, then your baby will quickly realize that the sign and the spoken word are the same thing. Once your baby realizes that a sign can help him get what he wants, then it will be much easier to teach him new signs. Once my daughter understood that everything has a sign, we would only have to make a new sign once and she would pick it up. However, if you aren't in the mood to sign one day, that’s okay – don't be too hard on yourself.
  5. Look for motivational signs. Once your baby has picked up some signs and you want to introduce new words, I suggest looking for ‘motivational' signs or things that your baby is interested in. If your baby loves bananas, then teach her the sign for bananas; she will be motivated to learn that sign. If she hates peas, then there is no point in trying to teach her a sign she'll never use. Food, toys and animals tend to be great motivational signs for babies.
  6. Make it fun and look for ‘teachable' moments. If it isn't fun, then your baby won't be interested in learning and it will be a chore for you. You can play signing games with your baby. For example, if your baby likes books, you can show him the signs for the pictures in the book. This type of learning is ‘active' rather than ‘passive' learning. When you ask your child to show you the sign for whatever is in the book, they are actively participating in the story rather than just sitting and listening. By teaching your child signs while reading, you will find they are more engaged in the lesson. It becomes a game and children love to be quizzed.
  7. Don't give up! This is probably the most important tip! Some parents give up too soon. They get frustrated because their babies don't sign back to them right away. Remember that the more consistent you are, the faster they will learn the signs. I have never seen a baby fail to learn when their parents were consistent with teaching them. Be patient and stick with just a few signs until your baby ‘gets it'.

If you have any questions about signing with your baby please feel free to send me an email. Visit my website for more information. While you are there, visit our ‘Media' section to see different videos of a signing baby; watch her fingerspell KIWI, try and sign her alphabet at 17 months and teach another baby how to sign.

Laura Berg, Owner

My Smart Hands, 'Educating young minds'


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