You gaze into calm baby’s eyes and wonder lovingly what your precious cherub is thinking. Two hours later, you try desperately to get a glimpse of the eyes of the wild creature (formerly your adorable cherub) writhing, fussing, crying dramatically, hoping you can find a small clue to end the horror. Trying to understand a baby who is not yet talking can be quite a challenge. With baby sign language, your baby can give you clues and solutions.
Baby sign language can help babies communicate – actually tell you things – long before they can speak. That’s right: they can use their hands to make signs for things they want to say.
“But our baby isn’t deaf. We don’t need sign language.” If you haven’t heard about baby sign language, you’re in for a treat. Baby sign language uses American Sign Language (ASL) signs to help babies and toddlers communicate before they can talk. It’s been around for 20 years or so and has helped so many parents and babies thrive during those difficult, pre-verbal months of early childhood.
Baby sign language borrows signs from the language of the deaf to help not-yet-talking babies express themselves. Even if you only ever use a handful of signs, signing can make a big difference in the life of your baby and your family. While it requires parents to invest some time and energy to learn, use, and teach the signs, it isn’t hard to experience the benefits of signing.
5 Benefits of Baby Sign Language:
1. Early Communication
Signs give children the ability to communicate more successfully before they can speak. Instead of whining and crying when they want milk, they can open and close one hand and make the milk sign, for example. Signs can cut out the guesswork of understanding what baby is trying to say.
2. Language Development
Studies indicate that the use of signs has long-term benefits for the development and success of a child’s language and vocabulary learning and usage. If you want your child to talk, you need to speak to them, read to them, and sing to them. Signing lets them participate in the two-way exchange of language before their little mouths can form words.
3. Reduction of Frustration
Children’s brains grow and develop at astounding rates throughout their early childhood. Speech lags as months and months will pass before the 40+ muscles of the vocal tract begin to produce meaningful sounds and, eventually, language. In the meantime, there is quite a lot going on in their brains that they cannot communicate. It can be very frustrating for a child who cannot express his thoughts, requests, or interests to his adult. It can be equally frustrating for an adult who cannot decipher the code of a child’s gestures, whines, and screams. Signs can circumvent some of the daily frustration of the non-verbal period and help soothe the “Terrible Twos.”
4. Sharing the Load
A baby’s primary caregiver is usually the person who best understands baby’s earliest non-verbal communication. With a combination of intuition, magic, and some luck, moms can often tell the difference between a baby’s cries for help, for food, for a missing toy, or fear. With signs, communication is clearer and can be read by a wider audience of caregivers. Mom (or whoever is the primary caregiver) is no longer the sole interpreter for baby.
Research confirms that exposing children to more than one language provides a boost to language capacity, as well as to other areas of early development. In single-language households, baby sign language is an easy way to add a second language. Baby is hearing one language (receptive language) and seeing and using another (receptive and expressive language). In multilingual households, baby sign language makes three (or more) languages. It can provide an instrumental bridge between other languages since the sign is the same, no matter the spoken language.
Convinced? Ready to start? Great!
5 Steps to Baby Sign Language:
1. Start with a few signs.
Especially signs for words your baby is likely to want to use. The five signs highlighted below will give you a good start. Yes, just a handful of signs can make a big difference!
2. Always SAY the word when you make the sign.
The key to developing spoken language is for a child to hear the word many, many times. Sign language is not a substitute for spoken language but a bridge to spoken language. Say it, sign it. Rinse, repeat.
3. Repeat often.
The more you use a sign and say the word, the more likely your child will pick it up and sign it back to you. Using a sign in context when the thing you are signing is present or happening offers baby a better chance for learning the sign.
4. Get everyone involved.
Yes, it is possible to succeed if only one adult in a baby’s life signs. However, the more people are signing, the more repetitions the baby will see. And when baby signs back, having more people involved means she will realize that making a sign has meaning for those who see it, too. Include everyone in baby’s nest: mom, dad, siblings, grandparents, caretakers, extended family.
5. Have fun!
Babies come into this world with so many needs, and there seems to be no shortage of suggestions of things parents should or must do to ensure a successful life for their babies. This is a tool that can help make your lives a little easier in the early months. Relax and have fun with it! I like to tell moms and dads in my baby sign language classes: It’s not a competition, it’s a conversation!
What else do you need?