Baby Sign Language: Another great way to communicate with your child

At the age of 38, with a 12 year old and a 9 year old solidly out of diapers, in school and on the road to young adulthood, we decided to have Baby Number Three. You’d think that by now I could say I have seen it all. But honestly, with the proliferation of the baby product industry over the past 10 years, there are days when I wonder, “Did I really do this before?” This of course makes me feel every year of my age, recalling comments from my parents when we had our first child, “They didn’t have that when you were born.”

This time around, I have been very fortunate to try out some of the many new products and baby classes available. Next to baby yoga, my favourite “new” experience has to be baby sign language. Baby sign language has become increasingly popular over the last few years, probably the result of that memorable scene in “Meet the Fockers” when Robert DeNiro taught his grandson to sign “poop”. Teaching infants and young children to sign has actually been around for decades, with a fair amount of research to support its advantages.

Preverbal babies begin to gesture well before they can speak. Talking and forming words using gestures is far less complicated than speech, which involves precise breathing, lip and tongue movements that are much more difficult to mimic since so much occurs inside the mouth and not visible like hand signs. 

Baby Number Three has been reaching her arms out to be picked up since she was about six months old. The idea behind baby sign language is to build on this ability to gesture. By teaching your child specific signs, they can express their needs earlier than they could otherwise and frustration and tantrums can be avoided or diminished. Joseph Garcia, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, conducted research which showed that babies who are exposed to signs “regularly and consistently” at six to seven months of age can begin to use the signs effectively by their eighth or ninth month.

It is also well documented that from age 1 to 3, neural pathways thrive. The more pathways that are made, the more possibilities exist. After the age of 3, neural connections are condensed so only those that are well used remain. The window of opportunity to affect your child’s brain development is incredibly short! With two children in French Immersion, we saw baby sign language as a natural extension of the immersion theory. Expose young children to a second (or third!) language early on, and they will become better learners across the board.

We decided to take a course in baby sign language offered through “My Smart Hands”, a Canadian-based small business started by Laura Berg, a trained American Sign Language interpreter and teacher. My Smart Hands has instructors and classes around the world, as well as digital resources and iPhone apps that can greatly assist you in learning baby sign language. Our instructor, Karen Hewko taught us the basic signs for everyday life: from mealtime to playtime to bedtime and it’s remarkable how quickly Baby Number Three has picked this up. She now has a vocabulary of about 12-15 signs and at 18 months is now starting to put two signs together (i.e. “more” “apple”)

Not everyone will understand the idea behind infant sign language. Like most things in parenting, there will be people who want to give you advice or feel compelled to tell you that you’re doing the wrong thing. I have often been asked “Why don’t you want her to speak?” But infant signing will not hinder your child from speaking. At the very least, incorporating some basic sign language into your day aids bonding because of the need to make more eye-to-eye and tactile contact with your child.

And, like reading to your child, communication is at the heart of child development. Infant sign language is one more way you can connect with your little one and set them on a path for success.

Even if you aren’t interested in the science behind infant signing, the bottom line is that it’s just plain fun! Baby Number Three loves learning new signs, singing songs that incorporate them and our family loves doing it too.

Tips on teaching baby sign language

  • It’s never too early or too late to start.
  • Concentrate on just a couple of signs in the beginning. Use eye contact and say the word out loud. Good first signs are food related, such as “milk”, “eat” or “more”.
  • Be consistent! Do the signs consistently on a regular basis. Try to include other caregivers.
  • When you notice your child mimicking signs, praise them! And then start adding in new signs.
  • Don’t get discouraged. It may take a while before your child is signing back, especially if they are young when you start.

There are many books and DVDs available that give more information and demonstrate the signs, as well as local baby signing groups in many areas. A good place to start is www.mysmarthands.ca and www.babysigningtime.com

Submitted by Jennifer from the Kids Can Fly Board of Directors