Teaching Your Baby Sign Language
Is it a good idea to teach your baby to sign? Is it useful? How is it done? Here, we give you a rundown of what you need to know to decide if teaching your baby to sign is right for you.
The basic idea
Babies are too young to communicate their needs in spoken words, and parents are often frustrated trying to differentiate between cries. Teaching your baby to sign can improve communication and reduce frustration. It is also a good mode of parent-baby bonding, and can have positive cognitive effects on your child later on in life including better communication skills and increased self-esteem.
How is it done?
Parents may think that if they don’t know sign language themselves, they couldn’t teach it. But the truth is, if it’s simple enough for an infant to pick up, parents can learn quickly themselves. A lot of what you’ll be teaching is done through repetition, starting with words for family, close friends and pets; then ones relating to eating, often: “food,” “more,” and “all done.” Parents often choose words like “hot,” which occur regularly and teach safety, from there.
Ways to teach signing
There are many ways to learn and teach baby signing. Remember that at first it will only be a few words at a time, so there’s no need to immediately invest in materials. In the long run, there are books, DVDs, flash cards and online tools you may want to check out. Having a visual (wall chart, poster, etc) at home will help incorporate others and encourage them to sign with your baby, as well as help them figure out what your baby is communicating. A sign language dictionary will also be helpful if you keep up the practice and your baby wants to learn new words in a self-directed way later on. Most of all, practice will be the best tool you have.
When should you start?
You can start signing to your baby as early as when he or she is 6 months old. They won’t pick it up for another couple of months themselves. Some people suggest waiting until about 9 months when they’re more able to mimic signs. You can start older, even at a year or 18 months, at which point learning may happen faster, but your child is more likely to have some verbal skills by then. Think of signing the way you think of teaching your baby to wave while saying “hi” or “bye”—adding a motion to a known word and concept.
How long does it take?
One or two 5 minute signing sessions per day is all you need. Try to use signs as appropriate throughout the day if you’re trying to teach baby to ask for a pacifier, book or stuffed toy, for example. The main thing to keep in mind isn’t the length of time, but being consistent. Use words aloud while you sign, and don’t expect results for at least two months.
Fun, calm, consistent
You want teaching and learning sign language to be productive, but you also want it to be fun.
Where possible, involve others in your signing practice, such as older siblings, grandparents and babysitters. Consistency is key.
Don’t worry if your baby is coming up with “unofficial” signs. While learning proper ASL is an added benefit, if you understand your baby’s signs and it improves your communication, baby’s needs being met and lowers frustration—it’s working.
If it’s not enjoyable for you and your baby, if you’re finding it to be too much work to keep up, or if it’s causing (rather than decreasing) frustration—you may want to stop.
Will learning sign language delay babies’ verbal skills?
In short: no. While this has bee a concern, it has been proven wrong. In fact, learning signing has overall positive effects on children being able to communicate needs and emotions. A helpful analogy is thinking of it as similar to crawling making babies interested in and excited about being mobile, rather than delaying them from walking. Signing is a way babies can begin to master communication before they’re developmentally ready to be verbal.