Parents in the deaf community have known for years that babies could communicate through sign long before their vocal cords allow them to speak, but the trend of teaching baby sign language basics didn’t really catch on because of the false assumption that signing impeded later verbal language development. We now know that not only does signing not keep a baby from talking; it actually helps them to start talking sooner and have better language skills.
By using sign, children learn how to express themselves with words, and some will even start to put words together in sentences before they turn one. Sign is also great for relieving some of the frustration you and your child face because they can tell you exactly what they want. This is especially helpful if your child is ill. Imagine a child under a year being able to tell you not only that they’re in pain, but where it hurts. If you’re intrigued by baby sign language, here are some tips on the basics of getting started.
Before you start teaching your baby to sign, you should decide what signs to use. While the logical choice would be American Sign Language, some people discourage this because the signs are too complicated for developing hands and fingers. If you want to use simpler signs, there are books and videos with signs that are easier for babies to perform. Or you can make up your own signs, whatever works best for you. Just be careful with non-ASL signs. Some parents have unknowingly taught their children to use offensive language and been very embarrassed later on. Even if you use a sign from a baby sign book, that doesn’t mean you’re safe. It’s best to check with someone who knows ASL before teaching a new sign to your child.
Once you’ve decided what signs you are going to use, you need to take the time to learn them. If you do decide to use ASL, there are many resources online to learn from. Not only are there online ASL dictionaries; there are also specific resources that include only signs babies will need. They even have videos so you know you’re doing them right. To learn the signs, you may want to start using them even before your child is ready. This way you’ll be in practice when they are. The important part is to be consistent. Once you choose a sign, stick with it. And use it whenever the baby is in the room. That way, they think it is a normal part of communication.
Teaching a child sign language takes a little time, but is fairly simple. If you use hand signs, you can start around 7 to 8 months; however signs involving the lips and tongue can be taught starting at birth. You can teach your child to stick out their tongue for pacifier, or purse their lips if they want milk. To teach a sign, simply make the sign or facial expression every time you use a word. To keep your child from getting confused, teach them one word at a time. Once they’re successfully using that word, add another. Since this process might go slowly, teach them the most important words first, like: milk, wet (diaper), and ow (pain). These will also be the most useful words to you.