Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sign Language for Babies

Teach your baby to sign.  You'll be so glad you did!

If there's one thing I recommend parents teach their infants besides how to eat, sleep, and snuggle with you, it's this.  Sign language is the best form of communication for babies and toddlers who aren't fully verbal yet, and it makes them smarter too!

Babies are more clever than you might think.  In the first year of life they go from crying anxiously for their every need to toddlers who are anticipating the day and interacting with others.  During this time their brains are primed for soaking up knowledge about this strange and marvelous new world.

This is the best time to learn one more super valuable new skill.  There are so many great benefits to be gained from this small investment.  Caregivers can easily work the signs into their ongoing interactions with their little ones, and use them in conjunction (as opposed to in place of) with words.

See this wonderful example of signing between mom and child.

Here's a simple breakdown of the advantages:
1) Your baby will be smarter because of the language stimulation.
2) Baby will be happier once his his needs are communicated effectively.  This means a LOT less frustration, and a lot less crying.
3) Parents will be reassured in knowing what baby wants instead of having to guess.
4) Your toddler will be able to "read" a signing book to himself, and to you.  So darn cute.
5) Your child will make up signs, sparking his creativity.

Examples from our own daughter:
- at 9 months old, telling us when she wants milk, and when she's tired.
- at 12 month old, excitedly signing elephant when she sees them.
- at 13 months, using her all-done sign to let us know when she's full.
- at 15 months old, using the hurt sign after falling down, instead of crying.
- at 16 months, using the potty sign to tell us that she's soiling her diaper (first step in potty training).

Now, to get into more detail about signing and why I am such a strong supporter.

Natural History
Families in every culture have already been using motions to convey concepts.  Think about the interaction that happens when playing peek-a-boo, waving hello or goodbye, asking to hand over something, and singing nursery rhymes.  Babies eagerly pick up on these cues and learn to imitate them.

Language Development
A baby who is communicating by using signs is enriching the language centers of his brain in the exact same location that is used to learn verbalized words.  At around 9 months of age when your baby realizes,  "Hey, everything has a name associated with it!" he can start generating a substantial vocabulary of signs and use them to communicate effectively.   This lays a framework upon which to build a rich vocabulary of words that will eventually all be spoken.

Physical Capacities
Infants who learn sign language have a significant advantage because the motor skills needed to speak words comes much later than those used to make hand motions.  A baby can wave "bye-bye" by around 9 months of age, but it's not until around 12 months of age that you will hear those first words.

Not only is the starting point for these skills staggered, but the speed of acquisition as well.
A signing baby will know on average:
    10 signs by a year
    40 signs by 18 months
In contrast, babies can verbalize:
    2 words by one year
    10 words by 18 months

How to do it?
Though you will need to invest some time to learn the signs yourself, it is an easy thing to do.  Eventually, using signs will come naturally in your everyday conversations with your baby.

What age to start?
The short answer is ANYTIME from newborn to preschool.  Anyone who is interested should feel encouraged to try it.
For the most effective results, you should begin once your baby is able to focus on your interactions, somewhere around 4-6 months of age.  It will take a couple months of you using signs consistently before your baby will start signing himself, so be patient.

Who should teach the signs?
The more caregivers who are involved in signing, the better for baby to pick them up quickly.  Have both parents, grandparents, nanny, daycare etc. use the signs in everyday interactions with your little one.

Which signs to start with?
The best first signs are those things that are present in your child's everyday life, such as food.  But anything that seems to catch your baby's fascination is great as well.  Our daughter's first signs were "light" and "fan" because these were household objects she loved to stare at.  Here's some great starters:
  All Done

Simply work them into conversations with your child, and use signs when asking questions such as,
"Are you hungry?  Here is some applesauce to eat."
"Do you want more?  Or are you all done?"
"Want some milk?  Here is some milk."
"Are you tired?  It's time to go to sleep."

The repetition and pairing with spoken words are key in this process.

How do we (the parents) learn signs?
Don't feel as if you need to learn everything at once.  Just focus on a handful of words at a time.  There are a ton of books out there on the subject, which honestly, I found too time consuming to pour through (If I barely have time to eat, sleep, and talk to my family then how am I going to read these books?).  The books geared toward babies, however, I do find worthwhile since you can read this together with your child and learn as you go (see below for examples we love).

Choose your language.  We chose American Sign Language (ASL) with few words modified to make it easier for babies, and tried to keep our resources consistently along these lines (to avoid confusion of having different signs for the same word).

I recommend using the websites below, signing board books to read with your baby, and maybe a stack of signing cards for your baby to play with.  (Note, the flash cards aren't meant to quiz your baby, they are a focal point for talking; imagine it just like books but with the pages loose.)  For the more ambitious, there are local baby signing groups you can join for extra practice with other families.  We haven't tried this but it sounds like fun.

Websites with video demonstration:
Baby Sign Language Dictionary by My Smart Hands
Baby Sign Language
ASL Browser by Michigan State University
Born 2 Sign Language Dictionary  (site is broken, hopefully will be fixed)
ASL Pro Dictionary

Songs with signs and motions
I'm a Little Teapot! (Baby Board Books)  I'm a Little Teapot (book by Annie Kubler)
The Wheels on the Bus: Go Round and Round [With CD] (Classic Books with Holes)  Wheels on the Bus (great book by Childs Play)
Sign and Sing Along: Itsy Bitsy Spider  Itsy Bitsy Spider (book by Annie Kubler)

  Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (don't need a book, just point to the body parts)

Visual Signing books for babies and toddlers
Simple First Words Let's Sign  Let's Sign by Richard Priddy (also comes with 32 cards)
My First Signs (Signing Smart)  My First Signs by Signing Smart
Signing Time Board Book Vol. 1: My First Signs (Signing Time! (Two Little Hands))  My First Signs by Signing Times
My First Baby Signs  My First Baby Signs by Linda Acredolo (note, not all signs here are ASL)

Picture cards with signs
Baby Sign Language Flash Cards: A 50-Card Deck  Baby Sign Language Flash Cards by Monta Briant
Simple First Words Let's Sign  Let's Sign by Richard Priddy (cards plus book)

These are just a few ideas to get you started.  Once your baby picks up on signs, you will marvel at how quickly new signs are adopted and how eager your child will be to learn more.  You may also notice him using made-up signs for words that are important to him but don't know the signs yet.  If you do see this, I say go for it and encourage this creativity by adopt the sign yourselves.  Have fun with it!

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