How To Teach Your Hearing Baby Sign Language

There is a growing trend towards teaching hearing babies to use sign language.  That's because for a time, it's actually easier for babies to coordinate their hands than it is for them to speak, which requires complex coordination of the tongue, lips, breath, and vocal chords.  Signing with your baby can help you communicate, which may relieve frustrations on both sides.  Signing with your hearing baby does not delay speech and, in fact, experts say that babies begin speaking sooner when the parents have been signing and speaking the words together at the same time.  Here are some tips on how to get started.  

  1. Decide which type of signs you want to use.  There are two camps when it comes to baby sign language.  One supports the use of American Sign Language (ASL), popularized by Joseph Garcia's book, Sign with Your Baby, and the other supports the use of made-up signs, popularized by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn's book, Baby Signs.  There's quite a debate about it, but in the end, it's more important to get started with something than it is to do nothing.  If you decide to use ASL signs, you'll find many ASL-based books and videos designed specifically for teaching babies sign language.  You can also just buy an ASL dictionary or look online.  If you decide to use made-up signs, go ahead and start inventing!  Use gestures that remind you of the words or that your baby is already attempting.  You'll find many specialized materials based on this model as well.
  2. You can start signing any time, but baby won't have the motor skills necessary to sign back until 7-8 months of age.  For this reason, many parents prefer to wait until this age to start signing so they don't get frustrated that baby isn't signing back right away.  Remember that although most babies are physically capable of signing around 7-8 months, many do not start signing back until they've been watching you sign for awhile.  Don't lose heart.  Just stick with it and your baby will catch on!
  3. Start with the most commonly used words.  Start with whatever words you already say a lot or that are important to your baby.  Parents frequently start by signing "eat," "more" and "milk" (there is no universal sign for "breastfeeding or nursing" so many parents use the ASL sign for "milk" or make up their own sign).  Add more signs when you feel comfortable learning or creating and using more.
  4. Make the sign every time you say the word.  When you say a word to baby, sign it while making eye contact and making sure baby can see you well.  Use expression in your face and voice.  Also, use the sign when speaking with others around you so that baby observes you making the sign in context.  For example, let's say you've started signing "more" with your baby.  When you're at the dinner table and you ask your partner, "Can I pour you some more water?," be sure to sign "more" as you say it.
  5. Do it consistently.  We speak to our babies from birth and we don't stop talking to them just because they haven't started speaking back after several weeks.  It's the same with sign language.  Do it consistently and one day your baby will sign back!  You may even notice that your baby cleary understands your signs before she actually begins signing back to you.  To support you in being totally consistent, you may want to teach caregivers some of the key signs as well.
  6. Be patient and have fun.  Learning should be fun and happen naturally.  A relaxed approach is the way to go! 
  7. Classes are available if you are interested.  You can easily learn signs or begin making up your own without a class.  If you would like the structure of a class, though, look for them at your local library or community center.  Or do an Internet search for "baby sign language" and you'll find several companies that license instructors around the country.  


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