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More, Please! Speaking Sign Language with Your Baby

While knowing sign language is common for those with hearing and speech impairments, teaching a few key signs to your baby, regardless of how well he or she can hear, can make quite a difference in communication. Baby sign language is not just for child prodigies or parents with hours of extra time on their hands. Babies as young as 6 to 8 months can communicate with signs even before they learn to talk, making it easier for caregivers to understand their needs, helping their vocal speech development and boosting their cognitive growth.

What is the ideal age to begin teaching sign language to a baby?

The best time to begin teaching signs is when your baby starts to become more sociable and expressive, but before he or she has begun saying words – usually between 6 and 9 months old. “Babies have an understanding of language and can develop their motor skills faster than they can develop the verbal aspect. When they start to babble, when they show a desire to learn to communicate, and when they’re trying to get your attention – that’s the best time to start,” says Dr. Jessica Foxen, family medicine physician at INTEGRIS.

Babies will not be able to sign back right away. This process takes persistence and patience and, of course, the process varies with each individual child. Babies younger than a year old may need a few months of observation and learning before they begin physically signing, but with repetition, they may still be able to use signs before they can speak verbally. Babies older than a year may catch on to sign language more quickly, coupling signs with their verbal language skills.

How do we get started with sign language?

Pick just a few signs to focus on at first. You’ll want to build a solid foundation before you begin to teach more. Let your baby master a few basic signs in the beginning so she doesn’t become overwhelmed. Teaching the signs should be easy and fun for both parent and baby. Incorporate signs into normal daily activities you do with your baby, saying the word aloud as you make the sign. With just a few minutes per day of unstructured teaching, your baby can catch on and progress more quickly than you might expect.

Repetition and context are key. Using signs at appropriate and timely instances throughout the day will make it easier for your child to learn the cues for certain signs. Remember to also encourage your baby. Be positive! Learning to sign can be fun.

What are the benefits of signing with babies?

Above all, speaking sign language with your baby is a great way to connect in a way you can both understand. “It develops a closer bond,” Dr. Foxen says. Between infancy and the toddler stage, your child is going through rapid cognitive and emotional development. Sign language has been shown to reduce crying and fussiness during this stage because the baby can clearly communicate her needs, even without words. “There is less frustration, especially for the child, when he can communicate his wants and needs,” Dr. Foxen adds.

While some may be concerned that teaching a baby sign language may delay their verbal speech abilities, studies have suggested the opposite is true. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health found sign language can actually facilitate vocal communication in babies and toddlers. “It’s an easier transition because they already have this communication foundation they can build on,” Dr. Foxen says. Keep in mind that the act of signing a word, for hearing children, is meant to complement, not replace, verbal language.

Which signs are best to teach my baby?

When deciding on signs to teach, think about the ideas and concepts that make sense for your child and your household. Here are some signs commonly taught to babies.

Eat/Food: Place your fingertips to your lips
More: Tap fingertips of both hands together
Milk: Open and close a clenched fist, similar to the motion of milking a cow
All done: Hold both palms up, shoulder-level, first facing your body, then turning palms outward
Sleep: Start with an open palm over your face, pulling your fingertips together as you move your hand down and close your eyes
Help: Make a thumbs-up sign with one hand and use the other palm to “lift” it up
Please: Move your hand with a flat palm in a circular motion over your chest.

Signing with your baby can be a happy and healthy bonding activity for all involved. For free baby sign language flash cards, visit Parenting

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