Why Do Parents Use Baby Sign Language?
Parents want to communicate with their babies, even before they can speak verbally. Baby sign language allows parents to begin communicating earlier and understand their nonverbal children better. Using simple, consistent hand signs can facilitate understanding on both sides during the preverbal stage.
What is Baby Sign Language?
Baby sign language teaches babies simple hand signs representing basic words. This allows them to communicate needs, thoughts, and feelings with their hands rather than sounds. Using the same sign whenever referring to a particular word or concept helps the baby learn and remember. Baby sign language is modified from American Sign Language (ASL) to focus on useful, developmentally appropriate signs for infants.
Some signs baby sign language may include:
- Milk – Clenched hand moved under chin
- More – Palms up, fingers together moving upward
- Done – Palm out flat, fingers together moving side to side
- Diaper – Patting fists over groin
- Hungry – Fist rubbed in circles over stomach
- Mommy/Daddy – Thumb brushed down cheek
Why Use Baby Sign Language?
Here are some of the major reasons parents choose baby sign language:
Babies can begin forming signs and understanding signed communication months earlier than they develop verbal skills. While babies don’t typically speak words before 10-15 months old, they can begin using basic signs as early as 6-7 months. Communicating through sign language during this preverbal stage can reduce frustration on both sides. Parents better understand their babies needs and babies feel “heard.
Enhances Verbal Development
Research suggests learning sign language supports verbal language acquisition rather than delaying it. Signing engages similar communication pathways in the brain used for speech. As parts of the brain controlling hand movements develop earlier, baby sign language introduces communication concepts they will later apply to words. Signs provide context for the later words they represent. Babies signing typically begin speaking early and may have larger vocabularies than non-signers.
Learn During Critical Periods
A baby’s developing mind has prime “windows” for absorbing different types of information most readily. Their capacity for visual learning and symbol recognition peaks long before speech centers mature. Capitalizing on visual learning critical periods through sign language boosts interactive communication when babies are mentally primed. Their interest and memory for baby signs taper off around 15 months as verbal skills strengthen.
Reduce Frustration and Build Trust
The inability to express needs and wants is an incredibly frustrating experience. Preverbal babies lacking effective communication sometimes resort to crying as a way to convey they want or need something. Guessing what a baby needs can also frustrate caregivers. Beginning sign communication reduces crying and feelings of helplessness. Responding more reliably builds trust and positive associations between children and caregivers.
Support Cognitive Development
Using sign language engages multiple regions of babies’ rapidly developing brains, including visual, tactile, verbal and comprehension centers. The signing process promotes understanding of symbolic representations, language structure, and social communication skills they will apply to verbal language. Research correlating baby sign language with increased IQ scores also suggests cognitive benefits.
When to Introduce Baby Signs
Most child development experts recommend starting simple baby sign language between 6 to 8 months old. Reasons this tends to be an optimal period include:
- Fine motor skills required for forming signs emerge and improve dramatically during this period
- Rapid advancement of visual focus, perception, and memory occurring builds foundations for visual language recognition
- Social awareness and desire for communication blossoms between 6 and 8 months
- Frustration from limited communication peaks leading up to first verbal words around 10 months
However, this timeframe should be viewed as a guideline rather than strict rule. Some babies exhibit readiness for signing closer to 5 or 6 months. Alternatively, others may show more interest around 8 or 9 months. Paying close attention to a baby’s development helps determine optimal timing. Signing can be introduced earlier or later as appropriate.
Regardless of exact age, it’s important baby sign lessons happen through positive interactions within the normal daily routine. Keep early sign sessions short with lots of praise and encouragement. Let the baby set the pace rather than pushing for formal practice.
Sign Language Vocabulary for Babies
Baby’s early sign lexicon doesn’t need to be extensive. Research suggests knowing just a few basic signs can enable meaningful preverbal communication. Aim to teach simple signs representing your baby’s most common needs and interactions first.
Here are some good signs to start within the first few months:
Basic Needs Signs
Build on these with additional signs like “dog”, “cat”, “ball”, and “book” as their recognition and motor skills progress. Keep signs clear and consistent each time you use them. But also follow your baby’s lead – notice what objects, events or people fascinate them and teach corresponding signs.
Techniques for Teaching Baby Sign Language
Parents don’t need special skills to help their baby learn signs. But incorporating a few teaching best practices will make lessons more effective and enjoyable:
Demonstrate Signs Clearly
Use clear hand shapes, positioning and movement when modeling a sign. Make signing slow and precise at first so baby sees all its components clearly. Maintain eye contact as you demonstrate and say the word aloud. This helps connect the physical sign to the later spoken word.
Add Signs Into Daily Activities
Integrate sign language naturally within regular activities and caregiving routines. Say a word aloud while signing during diaper changes, feedings, play sessions etc. Using signs along with spoken words in real situations builds understanding.
After demonstrating a sign, encourage your baby to make an attempt at imitating it. Gently take their hands to mold the sign if needed. Physical touch helps sensory pathways engage. Respond and praise all their attempts, whether very close or not.
Don’t worry if signs aren’t perfectly copied at first! Sign formation involves complex motor planning. Offer lots of chances to practice. Break harder signs down into smaller steps for baby. Celebrate the least little effort. Perfection isn’t the goal – getting baby communicating is!
Make It Fun!
Incorporate signs into songs, games such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Twinkle Twinkle”. Gesture along to music they enjoy. Playful interaction removes pressure as baby absorbs signs effortlessly. Associating signing with activities they find intrinsically fun and rewarding speeds learning.
Tips for Smoothly Using Baby Signs
Here are a few handy tips for bringing baby sign language into your everyday routines:
Use signs whenever talking about the concept – Using the sign for “milk” whenever milk is discussed, poured, etc helps cement understanding. Consistency also prevents confusion switching between multiple possible signs for one idea.
Emphasize key signs – Stress or repeat particularly useful signs like “more” and “done”. Spotlight these signs helps baby grasp the value communication can bring.
Respond promptly – Pay close attention so you notice signed requests right away. Fulfilling needs demonstrates signing works and motivates baby to continue communicating bids.
Include whole family – Get siblings, grandparents and caregivers using the same simple signs with baby. This reinforces recognition and keeps frustration low even with multiple people interacting.
Rotate signs taught – Start with a few priority signs for basic needs like food, diaper, sleep. As those are mastered, substitute in new vocabulary like animals, family members, toys etc to keep expanding communication and challenge abilities.
Remember perfection isn’t the goal – Praise any attempt to sign, including “close enough” attempts. Quality sign formation will come with time and practice. Nurture the desire to communicate above precise handshapes.
Benefits Beyond Babyhood
While baby sign language gradually transitions into verbal skills around the toddler years, the benefits continue accumulating. Early signers often remain advanced in areas like vocabulary size, sound recognition and social skills. Sign language may also pave neural pathways supporting second language acquisition later on.
Some parents choose to continue signing with verbal toddlers and preschoolers when words aren’t conveying ideas clearly enough. Adding signs helps clarify needs around strong emotions, prevents confusion from language processing lags or speech delays. Studies also connect signing with reduced tantrums, less dependency on cues like pointing and higher self-confidence.
Even parents who discontinue more formal signing tend to hang onto a few cherished signs representing favorite concepts. Remnant sign use enhances communication and furthers emotional connections. Ultimately baby sign language isn’t about teaching intricate handshapes and grammar – it’s about understanding each other better!