Why would parents want to use sign language with a baby who can hear?
Typically babies are ready to respond to signs at around six to nine months of age, but they may be recognizing signs earlier than that. As they get older, all the way up to 36 months, they can learn so many more signs, and it will help them build their vocabulary, AS WELL AS increase their ability to communicate.
We do not use flash cards and ask babies to form the correct sign, instead we promote using our hands for visual enhancement of our everyday conversations. And we don’t really expect the babies to use their hands to talk, we just integrate into our own communications. We can encourage them to use signs by starting with 2-4 signs that we will start to use ourselves at first. At some point when we see a learning opportunity that may be a motivating situation, we may move their hands to help form the sign, while we say it and follow through with something real. After many repetitions of that over time, they may start using the sign as part of their conversation.
Even if they get CLOSE to the sign, we can show our enthusiasm, and act on it as if they had spoken the word, following with real life responses. This is even a greater way to help them make that connections. For example, if they have finished a snack and seem to want more, and their hands come close to each other, we can respond by exclaming, “Oh, I see your hands tapping (while holding your hand over theirs and repeating it)… You want more snacks.” Then give them more snacks. We are making real world connections in their brain.
In my opinion, my favorite benefit with signing with your baby is that it could give them more effective ways to communicate with you (other than grunting and whining) before they have the ability to speak. It may help eliminate baby’s frustration with not being able to communicate. Their brain is so ready for communicating long before their mouth and vocal chords have the capacity for saying words. Creating motions with their hands to represent something engages them physically in their own learning, and builds self-esteem as they begin to be understood more easily.
PLUS, once they get a little older, it is fun to use signs as a secret language to communicate across a room without any sound at all.
What would YOUR baby be motivated to use sign language to get? Eat? Drink? Ball? Dog or Cat? …
Throughout most of our Kindermusik classes for babies, parents learn various signs in American Sign Language. We start with a very easy sign that a child is likely to be motivated to use, “MORE”, along with a few other associated signs, such as “STOP”, and “FINISHED”. For example, when we enjoy a lap bounce with our babies, such as “Let’s Go Riding” (This can be any bouncy upbeat rhyme or song), we engage our babies by bouncing a steady beat with our legs as they sit on our knees.
At the end of the verse, we STOP, say “STOP”, and use the sign for “STOP”. Aaaaand waaait silently and catch eye contact if possible – creating a cheerful anticipation of what will come next.
“STOP”… “MORE?” … This will be repeated several times so the child can see and feel the connections with these concepts.
When we have completed the activity, and are ready to move on to the next, we say and sign the word “FINISHED”, or we may use the words “ALL DONE”. (same sign)
As you go through your day, you may be surprised how often you can incorporate these signs. As you see your babies behaviors indicating one of these desires, verbally ask while you sign “You want MORE food?” “Are you FINISHED?” Or with something your baby really enjoys, ie “MORE tickles?” “MORE flying?” “MORE splashing?” Make sure to follow through, then say and use the sign STOP. Then ask again if they want MORE… until you are ready to be all “FINISHED” These words are used in so many real life situations, that you may find that your baby will soon be using these signs as well.
A key point for using the word “STOP” with babies… it must be first used for lots of fun stopping games – to associate the word with as much positiveness as possible. The very first goal for this word is for the child to begin to control their body and STOP with a smile on their face, whether they make the sign or not. Actually, the physical action of making the sign for STOP helps the body to stop (although not foolproof!) There are a lot of ways to make this connection a positive one over time. Once the association is positive, it can be used in real life situations in which the child may be getting into an unsafe or dangerous situation, and they are more likely to react quickly and effectively.
In Kindermusik, we choose to teach parents the full sign as used in American Sign Language (ASL). This is for consistency, as these signs are recognized by many people around the world. Of course, babies will do things their own way and their sign may look somewhat different. It’s OK, and there is no need to correct them. You know what they mean. Parents continue to use the correct sign, and they babies may see the difference and adapt, or may not.
Other highly motivating signs are “EAT” and “DRINK”. Some families use the sign for “MILK” to indicate the act of nursing. We don’t use these in class, but if the topic is brought up by one of the songs, or if a parent asks, then we review the sign and how to use it at home.
During our music activities, we may learn the signs for animals, like “DOG” or “BIRD”, or for common objects they enjoy like “BOOK”, “BALL” or “SHOES”. We most certainly learn to say “I LOVE YOU” (and sometimes family members), and learn to “PUT AWAY” our things with the great clean up song we use, along with “PLEASE” and “THANK YOU”, and opposing concepts like “UP” and “DOWN”. Many of these words and signs are really too abstract for babies to be motivated to make the sign themselves, but it helps add a visual element to the spoken word and the concept, which allows them to make the connection and at least understand what the speaker means. And who knows what the child will be motivated to talk about, either with signs or words?
My daughter’s first signs, around 10 months old, were “more” and “finished”. At 15 months, she also used “help”, “please”, “down”, “up”, “walk” and “stop”, several animal and object signs, like “cat” “book” and “ball”… all that she truly loved in life… and sometimes “no”. For some reason, she always verbalized “yes”. She continued to be fascinated by signing, and continues to learn more as she gets older. Even now, in her teen years, she tries to talk with me in sign language in quiet places, although occasionally she has to teach me the new signs she is learning.
Several parents in class have commented that they have tried a few signs with their baby, mostly “eat”, and “more”, but want to know more signs and how to expand the use of signs with their child. Our Kindermusik classes for babies are not Baby Sign Language classes, there are other programs focused solely on this communication skill. Kindermusik used to have a “Sign and Sing” program specifically designed for that, but instead of having it as a separate class, the concepts and signs are now included in our regular classes for babies. We show how to use signs that are helpful to daily life with baby, and those that relate to the fun themes of our classes. The cool part? Our themes for babies change about every other month, providing LOTS of wonderful expansions with our sign language, as they relate to what we are learning.
From all the families I know that have used sign language with their children, I have only heard good things. The parents truly feel that building communication skills, way before they can talk, resolves a lot of frustrating issues, both for the parent, and for the child.
To find a “video dictionary” of signs appropriate to use for babies, check out the Signing Savvy Website, These brief videos show adults making each of the signs. but they don’t show how to use them with your baby… we’ll get to that in class. 🙂