What is baby sign language?

Baby sign language is a tool of communication that you can give to your pre-verbal baby.  Babies begin to gesture at a fairly early age: putting their hands in the air to be picked up, pointing at things they want etc.  They quickly learn that these movements will elicit a reaction from their parents.  Taking that natural gesturing to the next level, parents have started to teach their children specific signs that they can use to communicate their needs.  Most people use signs taken from a real sign language, such as ASL in North America.  By using ASL signs with babies you are not teaching them the actual language, you are simply using the exact sign for the exact English word.

When should I begin to teach my baby sign language?

You can start signing to your baby anytime you’d like.  Most experts in the field suggest waiting until around six months of age, but that is more a suggestion for the parents' sake than the babies'.  Generally babies don’t start signing back until 6-11 months of age.  Some do start signing sooner, but they are rare cases.  If a parent starts signing at 2 months and the baby doesn’t start signing back until 6 months, that is four months of signing with no reward.  Some parents will simply give up if it doesn’t work within weeks or months.  However, if a parent starts signing when their child is 6 months old and the baby signs back within a month, then they feel more motivated and continue to sign with their child.  Basically, you can start anytime.  Babies will absorb sign language just like they are absorbing the vocal one they are hearing when you speak.  The key is to be consistent and not to give up.  I have never seen a child whose parents were consistent in his/her signing not sign back.  Parents who don’t have success usually give up too soon.

What are some of the advantages of teaching my child baby sign language?

The main advantage that appeals to everyone is the lack of frustration your baby will experience if he or she is able to communicate his/her needs to you.  This, obviously, leads to less frustration on the parents’ part as well--not having to play a guessing game with their baby.  My Smart Hands™ founder, Laura Berg, always shares with people this story about early communication with her daughter through ASL.  When her daughter was ten months old she was eating Cheerios and signing more.” Laura would give her more and she would throw them on the floor and sign more again. Laura said to her, Then you don't want MORE… what do you want? Her daughter looked at her and signed more cheese.” Laura was amazed for two reasons: 1. Her daughter put together a two-word sentence at ten months. 2. There was no cheese in sight. She hadn't offered her cheese during that snack time, yet her daughter was able to clearly communicate to her what she wanted.

There are other benefits to signing with babies.  Generally, the first words babies tend to speak are the words they already know the signs for.  This is partly because we repeat those words more than other words as we are reinforcing the sign. We tend to spend more time with our babies when we are reading stories and playing games simply because, again, we are repeating words more to reinforce the sign, therefore taking longer to get through an activity.  For example, when you read a book you may say a word once or maybe twice if you ask the child to point to the picture of the word.  However, when you are signing with the child you may repeat the word 5 or 6 times.  You may say something like, “bear, do you see the bear?  Do you know the sign for bear?  This is the sign for bear.  Can you make the sign for bear?  Let me help you make the sign ‘bear’.”  In this example you’ve said the word  bear six times while you are trying to teach the sign

Another advantage is that signing babies tend to have high self-esteem as a result of being secure in their environments.  If a child can easily communicate his/her needs to you, then he/she is going to feel a sense of security. 

There are also the educational advantages that signing brings to a child as they get a little older.  Signing babies tend to have larger vocabularies once they start talking because they’ve been able to use more advanced language and are often asked more elaborate questions because their comprehension is clear to the parent.

Does baby sign language hurt speech development?

This is probably the most common concern that people have surrounding signing with children.  The answer to this is 100% no!  There have been zero studies that have shown signing to hinder language.  In fact, all of the studies on signing with children show that signing accelerates language in many cases.  People confuse speech and language.  A child who signs is using language, more language in fact than a non-signing child.  Speech is the ability to form sounds to produce the language.  Some children don’t develop the ability to speak until much later than other children.  The reality is babies want to talk, they babble all the time.  When they are able to talk, they will.  It is not easier to sign than talk.  It is much easier for a child to talk.  However, when you don’t have that ability, then signing is easier and a great bridge until speech does develop. 

Imagine two children who don’t talk until they are two.  The parents of the first child sign to him. The parents of the second child do not.  The first child is able to easily communicate with his parents and use 50 plus words easily, all while building more and more vocabulary until the age of two.  The second child is only able to use pointing and sounds to let his parents know what he wants.  When both children start talking at two, who do you think would have the larger vocabulary?  Obviously the child who was signed to because he’s used language in a more advanced way through his two years of life.  Plus the adults around him are probably talking to him in more advanced sentences than the second child because they know that the child comprehends what they are saying.

How do I transition my baby from using baby sign language to talking?

There is really no transition needed.  This process usually happens naturally.  The more the child begins to speak the less they tend to rely on the signing.  Very few babies will talk and sign at the same time for any length of time.  Most babies will realize that words are words and signs are signs.  Some may use words and signs at the same time for a little while but generally the signs will begin to drop off.  This is also usually a result of the parents.  Parents often slow their signing once the child begins to speak, there is not the huge need to continue when the child can easily pick up words.

However, I highly encourage parents to continue to sign with their child.  It is a great tool that you can use even with older children.  At the very least I would encourage parents to teach their child the ASL alphabet and begin to teach reading using the ASL alphabet.  When you do this you are using all three teaching modes that teachers are encouraged to use with their students (the VAK method of teaching, visual, auditory, kinesthetic).  Signing with children covers all learners in the VAK system.  Signing is visual because they can see the letter being made.  It is auditory because they can hear you saying the letter/word.  And it is kinesthetic because they can make the letter/word themselves.  We take in language as a sound on the left side of our brains and we take in sign language as an image on the right side of our brains.  By using sign language you are working both sides of the brain.  Not to mention that sign language is the third most used language in the United States and the fourth most used in all of North America.  How could continuing to learn a useful language be bad!

Are there tips for helping baby pick up baby sign language faster?

The most important thing for parents to do to help their child pick up signs faster is to be consistent in their signing.  It is more important for parents to sign each and every time they say a word than to sign 30 words once in a while.  I always tell parents to start with a few signs that they are comfortable with and use on a regular basis, such as the word milk.  Every single time you say the word milk make the sign.  The baby will pick this sign up faster than if you only sign it every few times you say the word.  You can sign as many words as you want and introduce as many as you’d like however, make sure you are consistent.  

It is also a good idea to begin by using some signs that are highly motivating to your baby.  Your child already has a way to let you know when he/she is hungry, tired, or wet -- he/she cries.  Try incorporating signs for his/her favorite stuffed animal.  If your child likes music, learn the sign for music.  My daughter was fascinated with lights, so I taught her light, which was one of the first signs she picked up.  Try to incorporate a combination of signs that are highly motivating to your child, as well as signs that you will find useful.

It is also important to keep in mind that all babies are different, some are going to pick it up faster than others.  I started signing to my daughter at 5 months, and she started signing back within weeks of me signing to her.  However, the founder of My Smart Hands™ started signing with her daughter when she was 4 months old, but her daughter didn’t start signing back until 9.5 months.  Some babies start signing back right away; others do not sign back until they are eleven or twelve months old.

What do I do when teaching baby sign language to my child becomes frustrating?

This can definitely happen!  We tend to be a society of immediate results; we are the fast food generation; we want what we want and we want it now!  The key is to try and make it fun and make it a natural part of your daily routine.  If parents get frustrated they should keep in mind that their children aren’t going to talk right away but we still continue to talk to them.  Just because they aren’t signing right away doesn’t mean they aren't absorbing the language.  Try to make signing fun. Sign and sing songs, sign and read a book, play games using signs, etc.  And remember not to be too hard on yourself.  If you have a few days that you are frustrated, leave it for a day or two and pick it up again when you feel renewed.  Yes, it is important to be consistent, but if you aren’t having fun and it feels like a chore, then take a break for a moment.  That way, in a couple of days when you pick it up again you may have a new feel for it.

How do I make sure family and other caregivers keep up signing?

Family members who aren’t as inspired to sign with your baby as you are may become more motivated once your little one begins to produce signs. The caregiver will not want to see the baby clearly asking for something through Sign and not be able to respond to that need.  The child will quickly get very frustrated with the caregiver’s lack of understanding.  This will be one way that the caregiver will be motivated to sign with your child.

Another way you can help in this process is by providing the caregiver pictures of the commonly used signs you use.  You can print off pictures, buy flashcards or signing stickers and place them around the house where those signs would be used.  Don’t overwhelm your caregiver, just introduce them to one or two new signs each week. 

Encourage your caregiver to view signing as a fun, interactive and educational tool to use with your child.  Just as they would read a book or sing a song to your child, this is just another stimulating activity they can add into their day.  Once your child is signing back you will find that most people in his/her life will feel more inspired to sign, as it is a way to interact with the little one.