Sign Language for Babies
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A Review of Using Baby Sign Language With Our Daughter
Baby sign language is rapidly becoming very popular with many of today's new parents. This early method of communication has so much potential, both positive and negative, that I feel compelled to share some of what I've learned about hand signs for babies.
There are many different versions and styles of baby sign language, but they all have one thing in common - They provide a way for parent and child to communicate with each other long before the infant is capable of speaking. Babies hand signing works because the child can control some of their hand movements long before they can do much with their vocal cords.
Non-verbal communication is very important to a child's early development. It gives them practice in sharing their needs, and lets them exert some degree of control over their own environment. Simply put, non-verbal communication provides an alternative to the usual frustration and crying (which also means a LOT less stress for the parents).
Unfortunately, most words and letters in standard sign languages such as A.S.L. (American Sign Language) are far too difficult for a baby to use. The child is still learning the gross motor skills he or she needs, and is months or years away from having the finger dexterity required for a standard sign language. Further, unless the parents continue to use it themselves, the infant almost certainly will not use the sign language anymore once they have adequately developed their verbal skills.
Non-verbal signing is also a great way to understand what's going on in your child's mind. Most children are able to start using a few different signs by the time they are 7 or 8 months old, and can have a vocabulary of more than 50 "words" by their first birthday.
Babies can start using hand signs as early as about 7 months, but what about for even younger infants? In the same way that an infant can communicate with their hands before their vocal cords, they can control the lips and tongue long before the hands. You can start with 1 or 2 "lip signs" almost from the time they are born.
The way to teach your child to sign is very simple. Just use any sign along with the verbal word every time you say it. Repeat, repeat, repeat - Keep using the same sign every single time you say the word. The child learns that this is the normal way to communicate. You don't need to use any "official" sign language - You just need a sign that is easy enough for the baby to do physically, and simple enough for you to remember. Some good early ones to start with are puckering the lips as a sign for "milk", poking out the tongue for "teething ring", and blowing air for "hot".
Once your child starts using the signs, gradually keep adding new "words", but make sure they are ones that are important to your child. Some very good ones are "more" (probably the most frequently used sign by infants), "good", "cup/drink", "bonk/ouch", "hot", "cold", and "all gone". Remember that you can use any sign at all, as long as you keep each one consistant for each word. The more obvious a sign's meaning is, the easier it will be to remember. Point to the different body parts as you name them. As your child develops, they will make up some new signs on their own.
For most parents, signing is just a temporary phase until the verbal skills develop. Repetition is the key to quicker learning, as long as you keep it fun, and don't be concerned if the signs aren't "proper" sign language. As long as you and your child are learning to communicate with each other, any sign will work. A few different courses are available for baby sign language, but these take time and money (two things in short supply for most new parents). I would, however, recommend the book called "Baby Signs", written by Linda Acredolo & Susan Goodwyn.
Incidentally, my wife and I included non-verbal communications with our daughter ever since she was born. At ten months old she first put two different signs together on her own. I didn't even know what she meant by "flowers" "bye-bye" until I turned where she was pointing and saw that a row of flowers had begun dropping their petals. Another time she combined signs for "ouch" and "stomach" to tell us she had painful gas.
Baby hand signing does take a bit of time, but it's been worth it for me. We used just a few of the standard signs, made up some more, and never bothered to learn signs for individual letters of the alphabet. Our daughter is now 21 months old, with an impressive verbal vocabulary (OK, so I'm biased....). She rarely uses her hands to communicate anymore, and people who meet her are amazed by how well she talks. She counts numbers up to 10, knows every uppercase letter of the alphabet, and loves to push buttons on computer keyboards while saying a word that starts with each letter - "a for apple, m for milk, p for parking". A few months ago she was with another child about the same age, when both of them saw some cheese being cut up - As the other toddler pointed to the cutting board, our daughter used verbal English and said "Tina want some cheese please".
I do believe that the early non-verbal communications enhanced our daughter's language development, and would encourage other parents to use at least a few hand signs with their own infants.
Article written: March 26, 2005
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