Teaching Your Baby Sign Language: Another Tool to Help You Communicate With Your Little One

Shelley Masini
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    Perhaps you’ve seen the flyers for “storytime with signs” at your local library or notices of “Baby Sign Language Workshops” at local clinics, but still, aren’t sure what the fuss is all about or whether you and your baby should give it a try.Baby sign language has become an increasing trend in parenting over the last twenty years, and the good news is that that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) approves of it. It’s a tool worth considering as you help your child with speech development, so let’s talk about what it is and how you can get started using it today.

    What is Baby Sign Language?

    Baby sign language is essentially a way to start communicating with your baby before they are able to speak and through the use of “signs,” which are basic gestures that mean everyday words.Parents use it as a fun, supplemental tool to help their children’s speech and language development. Dr. Jann Fujimoto, CCC-SLP, a certified speech-language pathologist, explains in this article from The Bump, “Baby sign is not a technical sign language, such as ASL or BSL (British sign language), which are primarily used by the deaf community and are more complex, with grammar and sentence structure. It’s a looser version that uses just signs for individual words.” Over its years of use, it’s been found that children who start learning baby sign language at 6 to 7 months of age, begin signing back to their parents at around 8 to 9 months. That’s many months before the first word is typically uttered (usually around the 12-month mark), and therefore, many months of communication with your baby before they can speak! Here are just some benefits of using baby sign language with your child:

    • Your baby can convey their needs and you can understand them before they can speak
    • Fewer tantrums and less frustration
    • Supports your child learning language and overall communication
    • Helps develop your baby’s skills to think, learn, remember, and reason, otherwise known as “brain skills”
    • Builds and strengthens that all-important parent-child bond

    Are there any cons?

    Not really! Baby sign language has not been found to cause speech or language delays, just to give children another way to communicate during their speech development, which reduces everyone’s frustration.April, mother of two, shared, “I used signs for ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘more’ and ‘all done.’ Also the ones for ‘water’ and ‘milk.’ It seemed a less frustrating way of communicating before they could talk. The signs were fun but were immediately abandoned when talking started.”And that’s the beauty of baby sign language. It facilitates communication between you and your child, helps with speech development, and can be discontinued once the words start coming which will typically become your child’s preferred means of communication. (Refer to our post on Baby Talking Milestones to learn when to expect first words and more.) One word of caution with baby sign language: don’t forget to keep talking! The signs are not meant to replace words, but to represent spoken words used naturally along with the signs. Baby sign language itself doesn’t cause a speech delay but failing to talk to your baby might. Sometimes parents get so focused on the signs and making them properly, they forget to speak to their child. That’s defeating the purpose! If you find yourself fixated on the signing, slow down and refocus on speech development. Refer back to Ten Simple Strategies to Help Your Baby Develop Speech and just make baby sign language another strategy!

    How to get started

    You’re ready to dive into the fun of baby sign language with your child. So how do you start?There are lots of books, videos, and community resources available for you to explore and use. In the meantime, we’ll give you some tools to get started right away.

    Learn some common signs

    Here is a free chart from Baby Sign Language that will help you learn 25 of the most common signs. Their website also includes short videos to see the gesture in motion.

    (Click here for the printable PDF version)For even more words, check out Baby Sign Language’s Dictionary of over 600 words, from “again” to “zipper.” But remember, your baby doesn’t need to learn all the signs! Start off with signs that relate to your baby’s immediate world and helps them communicate their specific needs. For example, if grandma visits often or they have a favorite stuffed bear, include the signs for “grandma” and “bear” in the first twenty signs you both learn.Teach your baby to signNow it’s time to teach your baby how to use these signs!Here are the general steps & principles:

    1. If an interaction, like eating or going to bed, repeat the word aloud and sign often during the interaction.
    2. If an object, show the baby the item, say the word and make the sign, again repeating often. Babies learn through repetition!
    3. In all situations, help your baby make the sign themselves by guiding their hands with yours, continuing to say the word aloud.
    4. Use signs consistently, every time the interaction happens or the object is used. Consistency is key!

    Additional resources

    Here are a couple more video resources that include video demonstrations of signing common words:

    Also, check out the book, Baby Signs, by Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D., who invented baby sign language in the 1980s. It was their research and studies that confirmed that babies who signed had faster speech and language development than the average child.

    Tips and reminders

    As you start and continue the journey into baby sign language with your little one, here are some tips and reminders from the AAP:

    • While babies are developing speech and language, we mustn’t forget that they’re also developing dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Signing won’t be immediate, not until they are able to control their hands and fingers enough to participate.
    • You can start to teach and use signs before the age of 6 months but it’s important to remember that you may not see results until about 8-9 months
    • Learn and add signs to favorite songs, like Twinkle, Twinkle.
    • Start with the most useful and meaningful signs to your child. AAP specifically recommends: airplane, baby, ball, bird, blanket, book, cat, cup, cold, daddy, diaper, dog, done, drink, eat, go, goodnight, happy, help, hot, hurt, I love you, milk, mommy, more, nap, no, outside, please, sit, sleep, star, thank you, up, water.
    • Teach all caregivers your baby’s signs. Baby sign language is meant to reduce frustration for all. If your baby thinks to clench her fist will get her milk but aunty doesn’t understand and respond accordingly, frustration will follow for both and the goal will be defeated.
    • And once again, don’t forget to speak!

    The key to baby sign language, as with everything in raising children, is repetition, consistency, patience, and fun!If along the way of your child’s speech and language development you suspect something may be amiss, or that there might be a speech delay, never hesitate to contact your child’s physician.You can sign up for 24/7 pediatric services online with Blueberry Pediatrics to discuss this or any other concern.