Every parent awaits the day their baby calls them mom or dad. Perhaps, the first time your baby refers to you may not be through words, but through sign language.
Babies communicate since the day they were born. They smile, frown, giggle, cry, scream, kick, and wave before they speak. We decode every expression, sound and movement they make to respond to their needs.
There are times, even if we try hard, we can’t seem to figure out what they want. They won’t stop crying no matter what we do. Oftentimes, we misconstrue them for throwing a tantrum. When they are simply frustrated for not having their needs met. Good thing we can teach them sign language while they haven’t spoken yet!
What is Sign Language?
Sign Language or American Sign Language (ASL) is a distinct, natural and formal language. In fact, people who speak English and sign are considered bilingual. It uses a series of hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate. Teaching sign language to babies dates as far back as deaf parents raised children.
Why should you teach sign language to your baby?
In 1975, Dr. Joseph Garcia, a baby sign language researcher, observed that babies with deaf parents could better express their needs as compared to babies with hearing parents. All because they used sign language to get their message across.
- When we teach sign language to our babies, we provide them with a language suitable for their present abilities. Babies develop their larger hand muscles earlier than their smaller tongue muscle. Thus, they find hand gestures easier to learn than uttering words.
- Everytime our baby cries, we know what they do not like. But only they can accurately express what they want. In the book, “The Baby Signing Bible,” author Laura Berg narrated how she managed to know the exact reason why her baby threw away the oats cereal she gave. Her baby did not want to eat sweets and preferred something salty. Berg knew about this after her baby signed these two things: “more” and “cheese.”
- We get the chance to learn about our baby. It doesn’t matter how young they are. Our babies have their own preferences. And they possess cognitive and language abilities to express them. Teaching them sign language allows us to discover more about their individuality.
What are the Benefits of Sign Language?
Aside from being a fun and animated way of communicating with your little ones, sign language provides communication, emotional, cognitive, and social benefits to your baby.
Sign language paves way for better communication
Your baby has a lot to tell you. Whether they are happy, they need help, they are thirsty, they want some apples, or they are hurt. Sign language allows them to express their needs and desires while words are still at bay.
Contrary to the popular belief that sign language hinders speech, it actually supports vocabulary development.
Teaching sign language to babies gives them the opportunity to use this complex language on a regular basis. This significantly increases their ability to comprehend. Thus, when they learn to speak, they tend to have wider vocabulary.
On the other hand, babies who were not exposed to sign language tend to oversimplify their words and phrases, resulting in a limited vocabulary.
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Sign language contributes to emotional stability
As babies learn to sign, they experience less frustration and more happiness. They tell you what they need and you understand them. No more wasting time and energy on guessing what they are asking for.
This allows you to focus more on giving them proper care and attention. In turn, they feel content and at ease. This also fosters your baby’s trust and confidence in you.
Sign language boosts cognitive development
Babies who were taught sign language tend to have higher IQ levels than babies who were not, simply because sign language activates more parts of the brain than spoken language.
When we speak, we only use our auditory receptors. We simply hear and utter words.
During sign language, we use visual, auditory and kinesthetic receptors. We look at the hand gestures and facial expressions, we listen and say the words, and we use our body to perform sign language.
When we simultaneously activate more parts of our brain, we boost and reinforce cognitive development.
Sign language promotes social skills
Babies who know how to sign can better relate with adults. They are confident with their ability to convey their thoughts and feelings. And they do!
There was once a story about a baby boy in a day care center who asked his teacher through sign language for cookies. His teacher gave him one while other babies cried helplessly without knowing how to ask. Sign language allows babies to gain the necessary skills in a social setting.
When to Teach Sign Language to Your Baby?
The ideal time to teach your baby to sign depends entirely on your and your baby’s readiness.
Raising your baby takes a lot of responsibility. You know you are ready if you have adjusted to tons of chores and managed to develop a routine with your baby. Then you can look for fun activities you and your baby can do.
Meanwhile, babies are ready when they can hold their gaze for a while and show signs of interest in you and the surroundings. They like staring, pointing, and holding things.
Experts say it is best to teach sign language to your baby around 4 to 8 months old. Expect that it will take a couple of months before your baby signs back.
Babies undergo five stages of signing:
- Observing your signs
- Realizing they are signs
- Imitating your signs
- Signing back
- Pairing signs with speech
Again, start teaching when you feel you and your baby are all good. It is never too early nor too late to begin. You can still teach sign language even if your baby starts talking. It is also okay to stop and restart when it feels more convenient.
Tips on How to Teach Sign Language to Your Baby
Babies learn signs for whole words and not individual letters. Now that we know about sign language, here are some tips on how to teach it to our babies!
1. Have fun with Signs. Gone were the days when learning meant dread and pressure. Many studies have shown that we learn faster and better while having fun. Relax and enjoy teaching signs and your baby will have a great time learning too!
2. Start with Simple Signs. We know you are excited to teach sign language. While it could be tempting to sign everything we see or say, it is best not to overwhelm your baby. Start with simple signs like milk, eat, mom and dad. After they learn to sign the basics, you can build from there and expand.
3. Say and Sign. Teaching sign language is as easy as saying the word while making the gesture!
4. Go slow while Signing. Whenever you sign, talk and sign slowly. Our babies take a little more time to process information. This will help them remember the sign.
5. Express and Sign. Sign language is not just hand gestures but facial expressions too! Let your face show feelings. If the sign doesn’t evoke sad expressions like hurt or help, then smile.
6. Sign, sign, sign. Repetition is the key to learning sign language. While we said earlier to start with simple signs, you can take every opportunity to repeat the signs to your baby. For example, make the sign for ‘milk’ every milk time.
7. Hold and Sign. For babies to realize that they could sign, parents should let them do it. Sit your baby on your lap, with her back in front of you. Hold their hands and guide them to gesture the sign as you say it.
8. Patience with Signs. Your baby is not supposed to sign back right away. All throughout your teaching sign, it is crucial to practice patience. Learn to accept and embrace your baby’s learning pace.
9. Follow and Sign. As you progress in teaching sign language, it is best to follow your baby’s lead. Sign the things that your baby shows interest in.
10. Wait for Signs. When your baby starts signing, always give them the chance to do it. The best way to make them sign is to let them sign to you what they need or want. This means you will step back in anticipating what their needs and wants are. So they can come and sign it to you.
11. Watch for Sign approximations. Sometimes babies sign but they don’t get the exact gesture. Pay close attention to the actions that your baby makes. It makes them happy and motivated when you recognize what they are trying to say. Be sure to still guide them to get the right sign.
12. Reward Signs. Rewarding your baby for their sign encourages them to do it more. You may compliment them with words, clap, hug or kiss. Or even give them the treat they want!
13. Sing and Sign. As you go beyond the basic signs, you can teach your child more signs with songs. Play music, sing and sign to emphasize words. The best songs to sing are itsy bitsy spider, row row row your boat and twinkle twinkle little star. You can replace the actions of the song with ASL signs.
14. Toys and Sign. Playtime is probably the best time to teach babies ASL. They get to do what they love most as they learn. Show them the sign of their favorite toys. Or play the show and sign game. You can also increase the learning experience if you buy toys designed to help you teach sign language. In toysnotch.com, we reviewed the best toys to learn sign language.
15. Read and Sign. Storytelling could also be a great way to teach sign language. Get a children’s book and read it to your baby. You can show the sign of the pictures or what is happening in the story.
16. Color and Sign. Babies love to draw and color. Teach them the names of the color and the signs at the same time!
17. Role playing and Sign. Babies are highly creative and imaginative. You will notice that they like to create make-believe situations. We can take part in their stories and teach them signs about what is happening. We can also give them toys that encourage pretend scenarios like wooden dolls pram, as this helps improve their IQ and EQ.
18. Sign while walking. Walking is one of the most healthy activities for babies and adults alike. When we walk, we get to explore more about the life around us. Walk your baby outside and teach them the signs for flowers, dogs, clouds, rain, sun or whatever attracts them.
List of Signs You Need to Teach Your Baby
Perhaps now you feel more confident to teach sign language to your baby. If you are wondering where to start, here is a list of signs you can teach your baby.
Begin with the basics:
This video provides the 5 basic first signs:
After your baby learns these signs, you can now build from there. Combine more words related to the list above to increase your baby’s vocabulary and understanding.
For example, you may add the following words:
- Milk: bottle, done, more, warm, etc
- Eat: banana, apple, oats, bread, etc.
- Drink: water, juice, cold, etc.
- Mom and dad: help, hurt, i love you, etc.
Here is great video to teach many more signs for baby:
If your baby is already comfortable with sign language, you may expand to the following topics:
Should you need references for signs, we recommend the books, “The Baby Signing Bible,” and “Baby Signs: How to Talk to Your Baby While Your Baby Can’t Talk.” There are also tons of videos available on youtube.
Final Note For Parents
Sign language is an activity that you and your baby can both learn together. While you wait for them to talk, teach them sign language and make this moment memorable, worthwhile and easy.
About the Author
Diana Therese Non is a writer at ToysNotch.com – a platform dedicated to creating fun and educational toy buying guides and reviews to help parents find the best toys for their children.