Let me start by saying- I am a huge advocate for teaching sign language to children!
I am raising a nonverbal four-year-old with autism and a child under two. Using sign language with my children has changed my life!
Not only does my son with autism understand what I am saying better (he’s a visual learner), my little one under two knows multiple signs and uses them to communicate his needs and wants.
Since I love using sign language so much with my kids, I want to share with you all the benefits it can give you and my tips for success!
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Baby sign language is a fantastic way to help give your child a “voice” before he or she is developmentally able to speak. Most parent’s (myself included) typically do an extreme amount of guesswork when it comes to figuring out what a child wants.
Some nonverbal communication signs a baby makes between the age of 8 months to one year include:
-Grabbing for objects
While these gestures do help you figure out what your child wants, they are limited at times.
Grabbing or pointing at an object is helpful, but babies are short-tempered if you can’t give them exactly what you want.
Thankfully, you can eliminate frustration by teaching your baby sign language!
By 8 months of age a baby can begin to make simple signs to communicate in a functional way.
For instance, if it’s around mealtime and you ask your child “Do you want a snack or milk?” You baby may respond with the sign of “eat” or the sign for “milk” or “drink.”
This is functional communication! Your child is responding with a sign that meets the context of the situation and tells you exactly what he or she wants. No guesswork involved!
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Why use baby sign language?
Allows baby to communicate better
By teaching sign language your baby is able to communicate with you in a functional and conversational way.
While you won’t be exchanging a complete conversation back and forth, simple signs help your baby communicate a need to you.
Lowers communication frustration
Most babies communicate through crying for wants and needs. As your baby becomes older his or her needs become more diverse. It’s no longer as simple as crying for a diaper change and a bottle.
Sometimes your baby may cry simply because you picked the red truck instead of the blue truck for your baby to play with.
When a pre-verbal child is able to communicate his or her own needs and have a parent meet that need, it lowers the amount of frustration a child has with expressing a need.
Not only is your baby’s frustrations lowered, but yours as well!
Furthers child-parent bonding
Imagine being in your child shoes… Your baby is unable to communicate effectively through words with anyone. This can be very frustrating!
You’re trying to communicate your needs through crying or pointing, but your need is still not being met because you cannot say what you want.
Now, imagine if you could crawl or walk to someone and sign a word (or maybe two) and have your parent understand and meet your need.
For your child, the love you show by recognizing the signs your baby shows you and responding to the signs by meeting a need means everything to your child!
Your baby knows through this communication exchange that you will take care of him or her.
With this same process being repeated every day (child signs for a need; mother or father understands and meets the need) you increase bonding between you and your child.
Helps your child make choices about his/her own care
If your baby is using sign language, you can offer your child more choices in life. This includes self-care acts with routine.
For instance, you can ask your child “Do you want to brush your teeth or get dressed?” (Using the signs for teeth brushing and getting dressed).
Now, you’ve given your child a choice between brushing and getting dressed.
Typically, we as parents work by our own schedules with our children. We don’t stop and think what our child would like to do. We just pick for them.
With sign language your child can play an intricate part in the decision making and how your day in structured.
You can also give your baby choices with:
May boost long-term cognitive functioning
Keep in mind more research needs to be done! However, a study conducted by the University of California in the 1980’s found babies who used sign language developed verbal language faster than their non-signing peers.
The same study then followed-up with the participants at 8 years old and found they scored higher on IQ tests!
Although multiple studies have found a positive correlation between sign language and cognitive functioning, other studies have found no significant results.
While I love using sign language with my own children, there’s always two sides to every story and the potential downsides should be considered.
When you see your baby imitate each sign, you swell up with pride! It’s adorable to see your baby crawl and walk up to you and sign “milk” or say “please” by signing the word to receive what he or she wants.
Plus, you will be immensely proud of yourself for learning a new language and teaching to your baby!
Negatives of baby sign language
There’s a learning curve
In order to teach your baby sign language, you have to learn it yourself first!
Although I have found it easy to learn, once you learn a few signs you will have to keep learning more to expand your baby’s signs as well as your own.
You might not get much support
Friends and family may look at you weird and say “Why don’t you just use your words? Your baby will start talking eventually!”
Yes, sometimes even the closest friends and family members may not be as supportive as you would like them to be. To that I say: Your baby, your parenting choices!
You know what’s best for your baby and what works in regards to communication for the both of you. But just be prepared to (possibly) receive a lack of support.
You have to be consistent
Not every child will catch on to sign language. If your baby doesn’t like to imitate the signs, sign language may not work well for the both of you.
However, if your child does imitate signs well it may still take months of you demonstrating signs for your child to start using them.
So patience and consistency with sign language is key!
Tips for sign language success
-Most babies can begin signing at 8 months old. But there’s no hard rule stating you can’t start before to get a head start!
Start with one sign at a time
-Don’t confuse your baby with too many signs. Start with one sign your baby needs to know the most (like milk) and then add more signs after a week or more.
I typically take a week between introducing new signs because I don’t want to overwhelm my boys and I want to make sure they understand and use the sign in the appropriate situation.
Every child is different and has his or her own timeframe for development. Signing will not happen overnight for your baby. It takes patience and persistence on your part!
Don’t scrutinize baby’s signs
Some of your baby’s signs will look similar or will not look completely clear. But that’s ok! You baby’s fine motor skills are developing each day and over time the signs will look clearer.
The important thing is to praise whatever your babies signs look like!
Work signs into daily conversation
Instead of sitting down and showing your baby new signs, add them into a sentence!
Sign language has redefined how I communicate with my child!
It’s increased speech development in my son with autism because he’s able to understand the words better.
Plus, it increases his eye contact because he has to look at me to see the sign and understand.
Now with my 18 month old son, he will come up to me, say the word and sign it!
He is also using the signs to communicate with his brother.
I could not be prouder of both of them and a little proud of myself because I’m learning another language.
While I don’t think sign language works for every child or family, I personally found the benefits of its use. If you are considering teaching baby sign language, it’s never too late!
Start learning a few signs you feel your child needs most to communicate with you and be patient and consistent!