What is baby sign language?
Baby sign language is a tool of communication that you can give to your preverbal baby. Babies begin to gesture at a fairly early age, such as putting their hands in the air to be picked up and pointing at things they want. 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. We recommend you use signs taken from a real sign language, such as American Sign Language, and do not make up your own signs. 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.
Why should I sign with my baby?
While most babies start talking between 1 and 2 years of age, they can understand and want to communicate much earlier. Since babies have control over their hands long before they develop verbal skills, signing enables them to express what they are not yet able to say. This reduces frustration resulting in fewer temper tantrums and increased communication between parent and child. Signing also exposes your child to more words at an earlier age, helping increase language development.
When should I begin to teach my baby sign language?
You can start to teach your baby anytime you'd like. Studies show infants can recognize signs as early as 3 months; however, most babies do not have the hand control to be able to sign back until at least 6 months of age. Many parents who use sign language earlier than 6 months get frustrated by their child's lack of sign response and give up signing. After all, we are a nation of people who expect immediate results, and when we don't get immediate results, we tend to give up. If a parent waits to begin signing until their child is 6 months, they are more likely to see results sooner and less likely to give up. So begin signing to your child whenever you'd like--just be consistent and don't give up!
When will my child start signing?
Every baby develops differently, and babies start signing at different ages. Most babies make their first signs between 7 and 10 months. My Smart Hands founder Laura Berg started signing with her daughter at 4 months. Her daughter made her first sign at 9.5 months, and by age one she had a sign language vocabulary of over 50 words. Comparatively, most babies at 12 months have a spoken vocabulary of no more than 10 words. Click here to see a video of Laura and her signing daughter Fireese!
What are some of the advantages of teaching my child baby sign language?
First, you and your child will experience a lack of frustration. Your child will be able to communicate his/her needs to you in sign language, and you will be able to understand your child's needs without having to play a guessing game trying to figure out what your child is asking for.
Second, children who use sign language tend to have a higher self-esteem. This may stem from their confidence in being able to clearly communicate with their parents, increasing their sense of safety and security.
In addition, there are educational advantages to using sign language. Studies show that hearing children who use sign language tend to have larger vocabularies, higher IQ scores, and learn to read sooner. This is likely because they’ve been able to use more advanced language and are often asked more elaborate questions because their language comprehension is clear to the parent through their use of sign language. See "What are the benefits of signing with toddlers and preschoolers?" below for more on this topic.
Does baby sign language delay speech development?
Absolutely not! There have been NO 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. In terms of physical development, control of the body parts used to make speech (mouth, cheeks, tongue, teeth, throat, etc.) develops after we gain control of the muscles in our arms and hands. Therefore, children can naturally sign with their hands sooner than they can speak with their mouths. Signing is a great bridge to communication until speech does develop!
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 signing. 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, who often slow their signing once the child begins to speak.
I highly encourage parents to continue to sign with their child even after they begin speaking. Sign language is a great tool that you can use even with older children. At the very least, I would encourage parents to 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, and 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. In addition, sign language is the third most used language in the United States and the fourth most used in all of North America. You are helping your child become bilingual!
Are there tips for baby to pick up baby sign language faster?
The most important thing you can do to help your child pick up signs faster is to be consistent in your 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. Start with a few signs that you are comfortable with and use on a regular basis, such as the word "milk". Every time you say the word "milk", make the sign. Your 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--just make sure you are consistent.
It is also important to keep in mind that all babies are different. Some are going to pick it up faster than others. My Smart Hands founder Laura Berg started signing with her daughter when she was 4 months old, but she didn't start signing back until 9.5 months. However, Laura has had parents in her classes who started signing with their baby at 6 months, and the next week they started signing back. Others have not signed until 11 or 12 months. Just be patient and be consistent!
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 to make it a fun and natural part of your daily routine. If you get frustrated, remember that just because our children don't talk right away, we don't stop talking to them. Signing is the same way. Just because they aren't signing right away doesn't mean they won't pick it up soon. Make signing fun! Sign and sing songs, sign and read a book, or play games using signs. And remember not to be too hard on yourself. If you have a few days when you are feeling frustrated, then leave it for a day or two and pick it up again when you feel renewed. Yes, it is important to be consistent, but it's also important to have fun!
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 be in a position where the baby is clearly asking for what he/she wants through sign and they have no idea what it is. 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.
You can help 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 to their day. Once your child is actively signing, 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.
What are the benefits of signing with toddlers and preschoolers?
Even after children start speaking, signing still has advantages. Children who learn ASL tend to learn to read sooner. This is because they can see the link from the manual alphabet to written words, helping them see the pattern of language. Children also love learning sign language because they are active while they learn. You can incorporate signs into songs your child enjoys, such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider", "Old MacDonald", and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star". Using ASL in school programs incorporates many of the multiple intelligences. Children are active learners, and ASL is one way to involve students in their education.
When should I stop signing with my child?
Never! By teaching your child American Sign Language, you are helping them become bilingual, a skill that will benefit them far into the future. You are investing in your child's future! Keep up the great work, moms and dads!