I’ve been drafting a post on using baby sign language for quite some time. I have been struggling to know how to best share our experience with signing (including with our 15 month old Toddler Bookworm, and our now talking Preschool Bookworm who has an impressive vocabulary but still loves signing, especially with his little bro). Quite honestly I think it’s been a tall order because I feel so passionately about the topic, and there’s so much I could say! So, I’ve decided to turn Baby Signing into a series of posts in which I’ll tackle various aspects:
- Our Experience with Baby Sign Language
- What Research Says & Resources for Grown Ups
- Best Resources for Kiddos (Books, Apps, Videos, and Online Dictionaries)
- How to Get Started with Itty Bitty Signers
- Signing with Toddlers
- Practical Tips for Introducing Signs
- Big Kids & Signing: How Our Preschool Bookworm Uses Signs
Let’s jump in!
Our Experience With Baby Sign Language
I first heard of baby sign language long before I became a parent. I came across a little book in the bargain book section of Barnes & Noble, and I remember thinking, knowing nothing about early childhood development, “Kids can sign before they can talk?! If I ever have kids, I want to do that!”
When my first baby bookworm was born, I came across Baby Signs by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. It was my first foray into the research to support what I intuitively found so intriguing. It turns out that the book I began with was written by the groundbreaking researchers on the topic. They now have twenty years of academic research to support the use of signing with hearing babies. (I’ll cover this more in depth in my next post.) The more I read, the more fascinated I became and couldn’t wait to get started. As Baby Bookworm #1 grew, I began signing with him, and quite honestly became so frustrated! The babies in the book signed back so quickly and at much younger ages than my then-baby.
In my local community recreation program, I came across a little class that taught signing to babies and preschoolers. I contacted the teacher and shared my frustrations, unsure if I should even sign up for the class. Why wasn’t my baby showing any of the readiness indicators?! She encouraged me to stay consistent and I would surely see the fruits of my efforts soon. What a difficult word for an impatient parent stuck in the comparison trap. We registered for a 6 week class, and it was a great introduction to signs. But the other children in the class were already talking, and signing away. I was learning a parenting lesson that I revisit often: don’t compare!
Time passed, and my Baby Bookworm finally began signing, too! It was so exciting, to finally see the reward for my diligence, but moreover to see him communicating! It was a huge game changer in our household. We finally could understand if he was fussing in his highchair because he wanted more to eat or because he was finished and bored (more and all done were our first favorite signs). Frustration levels for both grown ups and baby alike went way down.
Sign Language “Win” #1: Communication Up, Frustration Down
And that is my first item in the “win” category for signing: reducing frustration! This benefit only grew as time passed. We averted many crises of toddler emotions through his ability to simply communicate effectively. He could come to us and sign light, letting us know his bedroom was too dark to fetch his beloved toy. Crisis averted. He could ask for help please when his ball was stuck under the coffee table. Crisis averted. Each toddler disaster that might have been met with tears and squeals of frustration was able to be effectively communicated. (See what I did there? How I said “might” and “able to be”? Yeah, he was still a toddler. Signing didn’t allow us to escape all meltdowns!)
Fast forward to the days when Bookworm was beginning to really speak, sign language was a huge boon as well. Signing did not deter him from wanting to speak, as some have thought. Instead, it aided us as parents to decode what he was saying. Countless times we couldn’t understand what word he was saying in his sweet toddler accent, and he would get increasingly frustrated until we would ask, “Do you know the sign for that?” If he did, he would proudly sign it and say the same word he had been working at. “Ooooh, you’re noticing stars in the mural! We thought you wanted to go on the stairs! You’re saying stars!” And then we had the opportunity to say the word and model correct pronunciation for him. Lightbulb moments were had by all!
Sign Language “Win” #2: Windows to Baby’s Brilliance
The second “win”: facilitating bonding with our Bookworm’s budding personality. Although our first signs were purely functional and relating to manners (mealtime signs predominantly, along with help and please), we quickly expanded the signing vocabulary to include everyday things that Bookworm was interested in. The signs he picked up quickest were keys to understanding his heart and interests. Looking back, I can see the budding naturalist even from those early signing days. Today, at age 3, he knows the names of half a dozen varieties of birds and asks constantly to name the types of trees. Accordingly, two years ago, in the dead of winter when he was really picking up signs, he signed window, outside, bird, shoes (his ticket to going outdoors!). He passionately signed his favorite things with ease: ball, car, play, dog, cat. These became more than just vocabulary words, they were a means to communicating things he was interested in and noticed around him. No longer was I wondering what caught his eye as he pointed; he told me with certainty through sign before he had the verbal words. Hat! He signs. Oh yes, that man is wearing an interesting hat. I wouldn’t have noticed, but those observant toddler eyes did.
This is all beginning to unfold again for us a second time with Baby Bookworm #2. He is just over a year, and we’ve been working on signs for months. I have grown less frustrated and notice I’m more patient this time around, because I know the effort will be worth it. His signing vocabulary has recently grown after a long period of waiting & wondering. He caught on to milk and more before his first birthday, but it wasn’t until several (long) months passed that we saw some fruit to our sign labors. I knew from past experience that even if he wasn’t signing back yet, he was taking it all in. He proved me right when he pulled out signs that I had stopped actively teaching, seemingly at random. He now shows a great interest in communicating both wants & needs along with his interests. He LOVES to sign dog, proudly showing us whenever he notices one whether walking by or in an illustration of a book. His big brother and I are equally thrilled at these developments. I can’t wait to watch his personality emerge and see which signs he begins to favor as the months pass. I wonder what he will show us about his interests and joys through his choice of emergent signs! I’ll share more of the journey as we go!
I can’t wait to tell you more as this Sign Language for Babies series continues! I have tons more to share to encourage you along the journey of signing with your little bookworm! Next up: what research has to say and my top picks for grown up reading on the topic.
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