Welcome to Part 4 of my baby sign language series! So far I’ve shared a bit of my experience signing with my two boys (aka why we love sign!), what research shows about its benefits, and the resource gems I’ve come across (books, videos, apps, and online dictionaries). Today I have for you some practical tips on when and how to get started with the littlest ones!
If you’re starting from the ground floor, so to speak, you will enjoy a long signing relationship with your little signer! The only drawback to starting early is that you may have to exercise some extra patience and persistence. The younger you begin exposing your child to sign, the younger they will begin signing… BUT, there is also a longer lag time at younger ages.
For example, research* shows if you introduce signs between 3-6 months of age, your baby is likely to begin signing 3-6 months later. As the age of exposure increases, the length of time before they sign back decreases: begin at age 6-9 months = child signs back 2 months later; age 8-10 months = 6-8 weeks later; 10-12 months = 2-3 weeks later; 12-18 months = 2 days-2 weeks. That all makes logical sense, and is in line with my experience with my two babies (although my babies were certainly at the late end of the ranges). I felt extremely impatient for my babies to sign back, and with my first I seriously doubted that my efforts were ever going to “stick,” that I was wasting my time. With my second baby I had the perspective to know that wasn’t true! (As was the case with many developmental worries between Baby 1 to Baby 2 for that matter!) I was amazed with Baby 1 to find that signs I had taught him with seemingly no effect popped up MONTHS later! Meaning, I had stopped even bothering with certain signs and then all of a sudden he pulled them out of nowhere! They store these things away for a rainy day! For real.
All of that to say, keep on keeping on! If you feel like your baby isn’t getting it, they are taking in more than you realize. You’ll be glad you persevered.
Your baby is probably ready for signing if he or she is developing an interest in communicating. Common signs include:
(Any one of these indicates that it could be a good time to start signing!)
- beginning to point to things
- bringing toys/objects to you and looking for a response
- beginning to wave
- beginning to show an interest in the pictures in books
- showing frustration when not understood
The first signs that we introduced were what I’ll call convenience signs: signs that I chose because I wanted to know the answer from my baby! Milk, more, and all done were our first signs with both babies. I taught these primarily during mealtimes, although I signed milk just before nursing sessions and all done at their completion. With Baby 2, he picked up on milk early, but interestingly used it to mean, loosely translated, “I want something!” It was still an exciting milestone because he showed me that he understood there was power for communication in his gestures! He signed milk sporadically before even clapping or waving (which popped up closer to 10-11 months).
Many signing resources I’ve read recommend introducing just a few signs to begin (3-4), and when those are mastered move on to another set of 3-4. In addition to more, all done, and milk, some other useful early signs are eat, help, play, sleep, please, and thank you. Once you have the basics for mutual communication of needs, you can add on high interest signs specific to your child and family: pets (dog/cat), foods (banana, apple), toys (ball, swing), and favorite things (airplane, flower, bird, hat). The sky– and your child’s motor skills– are the limit!
When I first began sign, I felt intimidated by the idea of learning a new language. The beauty of signing with the littlest ones is that you grow into it together! You can take it a sign at a time and look up new signs as the need arises. If you’re struggling with something in your routine, look up a sign to help! Sign car to let your child know it’s almost time to go, gentle as a reminder not to push, yucky when they go near the trash can. They’ll start to sign back, signaling their understanding, and it’s always great as a parent to have that confirmation that your child gets what you’re saying!
In my resources post I shared my top choices for research and signing dictionaries. Our very favorite source to look up new signs is the dictionary at Baby Signing Time which includes a video, teaching tips and a flash card, for MANY common signs for babies and toddlers. Or, I will google the word with ASL in the search box, e.g. “hippopotamus ASL.”
Most importantly, have fun! If you’re stressed and feeling the pressure to have your baby “perform,” it will backfire! Signing should be a tool in your parenting arsenal to make your relationship with your baby stronger!
The research mentioned above has been replicated and published in several sources. I found the breakdown most helpfully described in Superbaby (affiliate link) by Jenn Berman (p.135) and Baby Signs (affiliate) by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn (p46-49).