When And Why To Teach A Baby Sign Language

  • By: Millie Zeiler
  • Date: March 7, 2023

When And Why To Teach A Baby Sign Language is a helpful guide that will answer your questions about teaching babies sign language. While body language on its own speaks volumes, when it comes to breaking communication barriers with your baby, nothing beats using sign language. Speaking from personal experience as a child who was born to deaf and mute parents, since neither was capable of comprehensive speech skills, they used sign language to communicate with me. According to my cousins who helped my parents raise me the first few years of my life, both my mother and father used simple signs with me before I even spoke my first word. In the process, my cousins also learned how to use their hands as it was their observation not only was I able to understand the hand signals, but I sometimes answered with my own signals. At the time, my parents had people concerned about how they were going to raise me because they were unable to hear and unable to verbally communicate like the rest of the population. As it turned out, they were in awe of how easy it was for my parents to do so.

Even before using sign language as part of a trend between babies and parents these days, my parents and I had a distinct advantage over our own neighbors who had a child the same age as me at the time. What they observed was how my parents and I spoke with each other before I was able to utter a coherent word or sentence. As a result, they wound up asking my parents to teach them sign language so they could better communicate with their own child. At the time they asked, their daughter and I were apparently a year old each. What my parents did was keep things simple with the most basic sign language they knew that our neighbors could understand easily enough. My father told me as they taught the neighbors, their daughter was at pace with them, learning each new sign as they went.

Why Sign Language

Baby Sign Language can be very basic. At the time, which was the early 1970s, we all used variants of American Sign Language. Nowadays, there is a modified version of it called Baby Sign Language. The beauty of this form of communication is it allows infants to communicate with their own parents, even when they don’t have the verbal skills yet to do so. Called the preverbal stage, babies as young as six months old can learn how to ask their parents for certain things by simply using a hand signal to do it. As a parent, wouldn’t it be cool if your baby could tell you they need milk? How about them telling you they need their diaper changed? Believe it or not, when taught how to sign to you what’s on their mind, this helps you out as a parent. It also builds a stronger bond between you and your baby in the process.

Now, my parents and I had a unique situation. I learned way more than the basics. However, as for the neighbors, all they needed was the basics, so that’s what my parents taught them. Among most parents and caregivers, Baby Sign Language is good enough. It’s a modified version of American Sign Language, designed specifically for infants. The key difference between ASL and BSL is the grammar rules. ASL has it, BSL doesn’t. Most of the time, babies will use BSL until they’ve developed strong enough verbal skills. In the meantime, BSL breaks down the communication barriers between you and your baby. It also reduces frustration levels among parents that are doing the best they can to understand all of their baby’s needs but sometimes feels they fall short in this regard.

When to Start

At six months old, your baby is capable of learning Baby Sign Language. This would be the ideal time to start signing with your baby. It is during this time period, going up to the twelve-month mark, your baby’s development relies most heavily on visual stimulants, especially gestures. It’s during this time babies will attempt to mimic what you’re doing. By teaching them some basic signs of how to communicate with you, this time period can be a major win for you and your baby. It will also draw you two closer together. Going back to the story about my neighbors, I learned the parents had a horrible time with their daughter when until they learned basic sign language. After my parents taught them, they admitted things became so much easier. This was a story they shared at their daughter’s wedding, which my father and I were there for. (My mother passed away when I was seven years old.)

When teaching your baby sign language, be patient. Although the six-month mark is about right to start, sometimes it may not be until they’re nine months old before they begin to sign back to you. The key is to be consistent with your hand gestures, the object you’re working with, and whatever you’re saying verbally. Remember, keep it simple. Usually, at six months old, your baby will start learning how to clap and wave intentionally. This is the perfect time to teach your baby sign language. You can start sooner, which is what my parents did. In fact, I do know I was more advanced than the neighbor’s daughter because my deaf parents had no other means of communication with me. The sign language began right from the get-go. My cousins who helped look after me at the time wound up doing the same. At six months old, while the neighbors and their daughter were just getting started, I was apparently already able to let my parents know when I was hungry or thirsty and when it was time for a diaper change.

The key is patience and consistency. Just like toilet training, you need to develop a pattern that works its way to becoming a habit. Once it’s a habit, keep up with it in order to obtain optimal sign-language communication between you and your baby. Ideally, you want to start with and stick to signs that truly matter. Before going there, both the parents and all the caregivers involved with this important stage of your baby’s growth should be working together as a team to understand and use the exact same signs when communicating with your baby.

First, stick to what’s most relevant. The three most important signs to start with should focus on the baby’s hunger, thirst, and toiletry needs. Over time, if you want, you can expand the sign language vocabulary. It won’t have a negative impact on the baby after they’ve already learned the three basics. In fact, it will likely result in a stronger bond with your baby, as well as better communication skills that will carry on even after the need for sign language becomes no more. What you’re doing here is not only finding a good way to communicate with your baby. You’re also giving them more reason to trust you, which is what you want. The more they trust you, the more they’ll cooperate with you, even during the toddler and teenage stages. However, that only works when you maintain consistency.

The Learning Process

Before teaching your baby sign language, you need to learn the signs yourself. There are some great videos that are helpful as they show the motions involved. However, this is viewed from a two-dimensional perspective. It’ll be easier for you to get it, but not your baby. Your baby needs you to interact directly with them. Don’t expect them to learn from the videos as you have because it won’t work. Besides, the baby wants to connect with you, not the TV. After you’ve learned the signs, practice them with your baby and be as frequent and consistent about it as possible. When introducing the sign to your baby, speak the word you’re signing at the same time. This will help your baby process the information you’re sending to them. Granted, they’re not going to automatically get it on the first go. This will take time. The more often you communicate with your baby in this manner, the quicker they’ll catch on. Again, my parents and I had a huge advantage over our neighbors because this was actually our only method of communication.

So what sign should you start with” Milk is the easiest one. When teaching your baby this particular sign, grab your baby’s bottle and hand it over to them. At the same time, verbally voice out “milk” as you use your free hand to open and close your fist. With American Sign Language, both hands are used in a similar manner, mimicking a farmer milking a cow from its udder. However, you don’t need both hands to deliver the message. Just one is good enough as the idea is to use the baby’s bottle as a prop for them to make the connection. However, they’re not likely to get it the first time. Ideally, you want to make this a part of your daily routine each time you hand a full bottle over to your baby.

Aside from understanding milk as part of the sign language vocabulary between your baby, you can also teach them how to sign eat, mommy, and daddy. If you have either a cat, a dog, or both in the home, you can also teach your baby how to sign about them as well. These are usually the first set of signs taught to your baby. There are also toiletry issues such as the need for a diaper change. The best BSL videos will have these signs for you to watch and learn.

Learning Curves

A benefit from BSL is the reduction of behavior issues when feeding time. Perhaps after your baby finished whatever you first gave them to eat wasn’t enough to satisfy their appetite. How can they address you that they want more food? Without BSL, their first instinct will be to cry or scream as a means to get their point across. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a quieter solution to this issue? Also, wouldn’t it be nice to teach your baby some table manners that could make your family the envy of a busy restaurant? Believe it or not, this can be done. Once again referring to my own experience growing up with deaf parents, at the fellowship after holding my mother’s funeral, we were approached by her former employer. She worked for him as a dishwasher and “wonton wrapper guru” in his restaurant. Whenever we were in his establishment as customers, we were considered the quietest family table. Apparently, instead of me screaming at the top of my lungs, even in the terrible twos, I addressed my issues with my parents by using sign language. I oddly enough remember this because I do know many parents in our small town approached my parents the same way our neighbors did. They wanted to learn how to use sign language with their own kids that ranged in age from infants to toddlers.

When it came to table manners, I was taught signs addressing concerns such as eat, more, please, thank-you, water, and done. These are easy. In some cases, without intentionally using American sign language as part of our own communication patterns, we use the same hand gestures as members of the deaf community do. For instance, “eat” is simply mimicking the motion of putting food into your mouth. With the thumb meeting with the other four fingers, it dances against your mouth which copies the eating motion. Again, this particular sign, as well as the others, are shown in videos shared by content creators who focus on helping parents and caregivers how to communicate with BSL. In addition to learning table manners, your baby can also learn signs such as banana and cereal. This is helpful when your baby has a certain craving for something specific.

Other signs that really help break down some communication barriers, as well as teach your baby manners with the least amount of stress as possible, can include words such as book, help, and hurt. Okay, so maybe at six months your baby may not be so interested in books but your toddler might. Without going too far ahead with wording possibilities here, bear in mind every family is different. I grew up with parents that had sign language as our primary source of communication. Although my father was capable of speech clearly enough that he could string words together easily enough to understand, he couldn’t hear what he was saying. He was a good lip reader, though. I learned that the hard way when I uttered a profane word in front of him. He knew exactly what I said and, well, I learned never to do that again.

Getting back on topic, the key here is using BSL which works best for you and your baby. Ideally, the basics should be your starting point before moving forward. Honestly, there is no such thing as teaching too many words to sign with your baby, but you have to be consistent about it. The bottom line, children learn what they live. This starts the moment they are born, even though it may not always seem like it. Even in the womb, babies have already begun a learning process as a fetus. It starts with basic instinct before being pushed out into a world that’s loaded with a whole new set of learning curves.

Understanding Signals

Using Baby Sign Language with your baby is initially designed as a temporary line of communication until they learn how to communicate verbally. On average, families and caregivers who use this technique tend to have somewhat calmer toddlers as the majority of the communication barriers seem to have been torn down. However, no two families are exactly the same. Human beings, regardless of age, cultural background, race, and skin color were not designed to be exact clones of each other. Even between identical twins, there are enough differences between them that define who each person really is. We all have our own personalities, as well as our own quirks. Because of this, BSL may seem quick and easy for some families, but this may not be the case for others. Each person has their own pace. Each one of us doesn’t always learn the same lesson the same way. This is also the case among babies and their parents.

So, when it comes to understanding signs, there is also the need to understand signals. What’s the difference between these two? In addition to sign language, there is also body language. When it comes to teaching BSL, don’t be discouraged if your baby doesn’t seem to catch on right away. If they don’t sign back, don’t give up. It takes a combination of patience, time, and consistency in order for your baby to fully understand the message. Don’t think they’re not learning from you the moment you begin to use sign language. Take a good look at their eyes and you’ll see their body language shows they’re observing what you’re doing. Believe it or not, even if they’re not trying to mimic your motions just yet that they’re not learning. They are, but they need to fully absorb what they’re seeing before attempting to do the sign themselves. This is why it is so important to be consistent.

It is also equally important to pay attention to your own body language. You need to be patient. Your baby can sense tension, usually before you even notice it in yourself. When interacting with your baby, even by using BSL, do so with enthusiasm. When your baby sees you happily using BSL as a line of communication with them, this encourages them to learn from you. Should your body language come across as disinterested or hostile, your baby will pay more attention to your body’s signals instead of the hand gestures you’re using. Ideally, you want the usage of BSL to be a fun experience for both you and your baby. This is what will strengthen the bond between you two. Now, once your baby learns how to sign back, they may not do it exactly as you did it. Don’t let this get in the way of progress. Keep in mind your baby’s mobility skills aren’t quite the same as yours yet. Be on the watch when they first attempt to sign back at you. Usually, babies start with a wave of some kind in an attempt to copy what you did. Ideally, what you want to do once this happens is encourage them. Keep up with that encouragement as it will prompt your baby to continue. Remember, practice is the only way to reach the goal of perfection.

When to Stop

While BSL was designed as the first stage of direct communication between you and your baby as temporary, there really is no rule suggesting there is a designated time to stop doing this. In fact, learning sign language as a second language for your child can lead them down a path that could turn into a meaningful career. Perhaps somewhere down the road, they encounter someone who happens to be completely deaf. Imagine how great it would be if your child knew enough sign language to communicate with that person which could lead to a wonderful friendship. Speaking as someone who grew up with American Sign Language, I’ve worked as an interpreter with members of the deaf community for years. Although it wasn’t my chosen career path, it has really come in handy in situations where I was able to bridge certain gaps that turned uncomfortable situations into really good ones.

Preferably, leave it up to your child to decide if they want to continue using sign language or not. Don’t make this decision for them without talking to them about it first. This will actually build trust between you two as it’ll suggest you love and respect your child enough to let them make their own decisions. Obviously, among families that have a deaf member in them, keeping up with sign language is essential. As for families that are perfectly capable of verbal speech, clearly you want your baby to become an adult that can realize their full potential as a human being. If that potential includes using sign language as a second language, by all means encourage them to stick with it. However, if BSL gets dropped once its outlived its usefulness, that’s okay too.

When And Why To Teach A Baby Sign Language article published on BabyCareGuru.com© 2023

The information in this article and on the site BabyCareGuru.com is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. THIS IS AN ENTERTAINMENT SITE, NOT A MEDICAL ADVICE SITE. All content, including text, graphics, images, and information, contained on or available through this website is for general information and entertainment purposes only and has been written from parents’ experiences raising babies and educational research.

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