We’ve talked about the why (research), the what (resources), and the when (with babies and with toddlers) of using baby sign language. Today we’ll tackle the how, the practical side of introducing new signs to your Bookworm. Once you’ve selected a handful of signs you think will be most useful to you and your baby, you’re ready to hit the ground running! The majority of sources I’ve read recommend starting with about 3 signs and mastering those before adding on another set. In the Bookworm household, we introduced milk, more, and all done as our first signs with both babies. Pick your signs and memorize how to form them, and then you’re ready to teach your baby!
- Choose natural learning opportunities that fit into your day. Make signing fun, not a chore!
- Sign immediately before, during, and after performing the action related to the sign.
- Always accompany the sign with the spoken word.
- Exaggerate the sign and sign at your child’s sight line.
- Use repetition to your advantage.
- When helpful, guide your baby’s hands to form the sign.
So, during mealtime when I see Baby Bookworm is fully engaged and interested in what we’re eating (i.e. we haven’t hit the Throwing Food on the Floor portion of the meal), I will say, while signing, “Do you want more? Can I get you some more chicken?” Handing him some, “Here’s some more! More chicken for Baby!” After I’ve been demonstrating the sign like this for a few days, I will help him (gently) make the sign by moving his hands in the correct motion, maybe at every other meal so that it doesn’t become a high pressure situation! The sign more has about a million teaching opportunities during a baby’s day since they LOVE repetition. I’m sure you’ve noticed. More swing? More tickles? More music?
- Praise any attempt at sign with encouragement and modeling of the correct motion.
- Be patient. Trust that your baby is taking in your instruction and working hard to create the mental connections to put his thoughts into gestures. It can take months- I found it helpful to have my expectations properly set, and much easier with Baby 2 because I knew it would require up-front work that I wouldn’t see the fruits of for some time. You can trust me that it will be worthwhile!
At first, Baby Bookworm’s attempts at more were easily confused with clapping, but with context I knew he was signing more. I cheered and said, “You’re signing more! More cereal for you!” while signing correctly with my fingertips touching. As motor skills improve, so will signing dexterity. The point is communication, not precision! Also, at first you’ll want to encourage your child’s attempts by allowing what they’ve requested (so long as it’s safe and within reason). So, even when Bookworm has already eaten most of a Costco-sized package of raspberries, when he signs more within his first few weeks of learning the sign, I spoil him with more than I may have normally allowed. Use your discretion. 🙂
- Incorporate sign into your everyday routine, weaving signs into your natural conversation.
When I decide on a new sign to introduce, I choose a particular sign because it is a high interest or high need word. Naturally, I wanted to know whether Baby Bookworm wanted more or was all done at multiple times throughout the day, so those signs were the first I chose to teach. (In last week’s post I shared lists of our favorite signs at various ages.) When Mother Bruce became an oft-requested read aloud, we chose the sign bear to satisfy his interest in communicating what he saw on the page (pictured in the title photo for this post). He had generalized the sign dog to refer to any animal including bears, so introducing bear in conjunction with a favorite book worked like a charm. In this way, the signs you choose to teach will be unique to your child and your life!
- Look for opportunities to include others in your child’s sign learning.
Since Daddy Bookworm’s family lives far away, our visits are not as frequent as we would like. Instead, we video chat weekly. It was so exciting during Toddler Bookworm’s pre-speech days when he was able to communicate with his grandparents through sign. It certainly warmed my heart to see him sign “I love you” from across the miles. This would have lost a lot of its effect if they didn’t know what he was saying! It’s a gift when important people in his life have taken the interest in learning the signs he knows and encouraging him. My mom printed out a “cheat sheet” for herself because she started to notice he was signing and she didn’t know what he was saying! When possible, share a similar resource with people your child sees often. There are many available through a simple web search, or if you’re so inclined you can purchase glossy charts.
Keep plugging along, and before you know it you’ll be amazed at the communication and the pride you have for your little signer!