One of the most difficult challenges of taking care of babies is trying to figure out what they want. And when they’re infants, sometimes it really is just a guessing game. But well before their first year, it is possible to start communicating with them, long before they ever begin to talk. The secret is baby sign language, and we have found it to be a life-saver with both of our babies!
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Every mom knows the struggle of listening to a crying one-year-old and not being able to figure out what he or she wants. You pick them up, they go limp noodle in your arms. You try a toy, they throw it. You try a snack, they push it away. You give them some milk … aha! That’s the golden ticket. Whew! Finally figured it out.
Just reading that scenario evokes feelings of panic and frustration, doesn’t it?
Yes, parenting gets a bit easier as your child begins to articulate his or her wants and needs (well … in this sense, anyway. Then you enter a whole new realm of frustrating called the “why phase.” 😉 )
But there is a way to start communicating with your babies before they can vocalize any words beyond “mama” or “dada.” The secret to early communication is baby sign language, and it has been a wonderful tool for us with both of our boys.
Here is why you should teach your baby sign language, why you shouldn’t be afraid of it, and how to start teaching it to your babies:
Why Baby Sign Language?
We used baby sign language with our older son, Aidan, and are currently teaching our second son, Andrew. Here are the main reasons we love using baby sign language:
Enables early communication
Before your baby can talk, you can start to communicate with him/her. How cool is that? Not only will it enable your baby to tell you what he/she wants, but it models the cause and effect relationship of words that lays the groundwork for future language acquisition.
This is my favorite benefit of baby sign language. Not having to guess what our boys wanted was such a relief. Especially at mealtimes, when I often wasn’t sure if they were crying because they wanted more food or were full – two very different problems with two opposite solutions!
Start teaching manners early
Another fringe benefit of baby sign language is that we could start the process of teaching manners early. By teaching “please” and “thank-you,” we could begin to train those responses before Aidan was capable of uttering the words.
Good for brain development
According to www.babysignlanguage.com, “early exposure to signing helps babies develop their language and reasoning skills. Studies show long-term cognitive benefits, including:
- +12 IQ point advantage
- Larger speaking vocabulary and ability to form longer sentences
- Earlier reading and larger reading vocabulary
- Better grades in school”
May actually lead to earlier and easier acquisition of verbal and written communication skills
Many fear that baby sign language will delay their child’s speaking, but that is not the case. In fact, many studies show the exact opposite to be true. More on that below.
Reduces anger and frustration (for both parties!)
It is frustrating for both the child and the parents when parents cannot figure out what their baby needs. Being able to use nonverbal communication before the verbal skills are developed reduces the anger and frustration that often results from not being able to communicate with each other.
Finally, teaching your baby sign language is just plain fun! I don’t know about you, but I love watching my kids learn new things. It’s especially rewarding to watch them do things that are a direct result of me imparting that knowledge. Plus it’s a lot of fun to begin “talking” to babies before we can actually talk to them.
Won’t Baby Sign Language Delay Speaking?
When we first started teaching our older son baby sign language, a friend asked us, “Aren’t you afraid that it will delay his speaking?”
What our (well-intentioned) friend was basically saying was, “I think you’re making a mistake that will hurt your child’s future ability to talk.” (A concern that is especially amusing to me now that we see that Aidan never. stops. talking!)
We just said, “No, we’re not,” and left it at that. What we didn’t say was that we had done our research before we started, and that research has overwhelming concluded that baby signing does not impair speech development. In fact, rather than hurting it, it actually aids and accelerates speech development. Many studies have shown that babies who sign actually start talking earlier than babies who do not sign.
Tips on Teaching Baby Sign Language
Okay, so that’s all good and well, but how do you go about teaching your baby sign language?
Here are a few tips that I’ve picked up from research and personal experience:
- You can start as early as 6-8 months old, when they can hold your gaze.
- Only teach a couple signs at a time.
- Start by saying the word out loud as you sign it, making eye contact with your baby.
- Then, take their hands and do the sign with them.
- Be consistent, doing it as often as possible.
- Reward them when you see them doing it.
- Don’t get too wrapped up in the “official” sign – remember that the point of baby sign language is being able to communicate with them, not that they become fluent in ASL. 😉
Which Signs Should I Teach?
We didn’t teach a lot of signs to Aidan. Again, our objective wasn’t to teach him as much sign language as possible; it was to create a bridge to overcome our verbal language barrier. We wanted to be able to communicate with him, as well as begin teaching him mannerly phrases, in the period before he could talk.
Keeping that objective in mind, we stuck to a handful of key words and phrases, and stopped once he began saying them out loud.
Here are some of our favorite baby signs:
- All Done
- Thank You
I know some people also like to teach the sign for “poop,” but I haven’t ever found a sign to be necessary to tell when my baby has pooped. 😉
There are a lot of other signs that you can teach your baby, and we might have done more if Aidan hadn’t started talking so early. If nothing else, “more” and “all done” are the ones I recommend starting with, because they eliminate the biggest source of frustration – knowing if your baby is fussing because he/she wants more food or is finished eating!
Baby sign language is a lot of fun because it allows for early communication between you and your baby. It’s also a life-saver when you’re faced with a crying baby who cannot yet articulate his needs. Empirical evidence has thoroughly debunked the myth that baby sign language delays speech development (and has shown that, if anything, it speeds up the process), so there is really no downside to spending a few minutes a day teaching your baby to communicate. Your baby will be happier, you will be happier, and let’s face it, it’s just plain ol’ fun to start teaching your baby new things!
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