Babies are amazing creatures. From the day that you bring them home, they are already communicating their wants and needs with sounds. Some of those sounds are hard to handle: wailing is number one on the hard-to-handle list. But for a baby, crying is their way of saying, “Hey, I’m feeling uncomfortable,” “Help me, please,” or, “Nope, I don’t like that!” If they could talk, we’re sure they’d totally say those things.
Eventually, they also communicate with facial expressions, cooing and babbling, the cutest little squeals, and body movements. Around eight months to 12 months of age, babies begin to use gestures. Gestures for babies can include pointing to something they want, rubbing their little tired eyes, and waving goodbye. Gestures make communicating with baby easier and help get them what they want. When caregivers respond to baby gestures positively, it can help alleviate frustration and confusion from the jump.
While learning to speak, verbal skills, speech development, and language skills are an important part of child development, nonverbal communication also plays an important role in parent-child interactions.
Teaching your baby sign language is easier than you might think. Start signing with your child today with these easy baby sign language basics.
Benefits of Baby Sign Language
Teaching your baby sign language is a great way to bond with your little one. Teaching babies signs can help them communicate their wants and needs and help them with speech and language development, due to increased interaction, eye contact, and joint attention. Even before they have spoken words, babies will benefit from learning baby sign language according to a 2000 study which suggested that, “sign training might facilitate rather than hinder the development of vocal language.”
Taking advantage of your child’s willingness to communicate is a smart move. Starting out, your baby’s signs will not be perfect, and that’s okay. The point is to have functional communication with your baby so that they understand that instead of whining or crying they can sign what they want. Fine motor skills will develop, and with time their signs will begin to look more like the actual sign.
When teaching a new sign, always say the word as you are modeling the sign. If it’s a tangible item, be sure to give them the item as soon as they make the sign. All children are different. Some may not imitate the sign but will understand it. Other babies may not respond to signing at all, but that’s okay too. Be consistent, and keep talking and signing with your baby. Keep in mind that the bond you’re building will help bridge the gap in communicating with your baby.
One of the first signs to teach a young child so that they can connect that their actions are getting them something is the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “more.” This concrete understanding of “I make a sign, I get something in return,” will likely make “more” a sign you will see a ton. When your child is old enough to sit up by themselves (typically around six months) finger foods are usually okay to start. Always double-check with your pediatrician about when to start solids.
Using a favorite snack, (Cheerios work really well), or even when spoon-feeding your child, give your child a few bites, and when they undoubtedly want more, prompt your child to make the sign, “more.” This may take a few tries, but keep with it and eventually, you won’t have to prompt your child anymore. Repeatedly show them the sign so that they can start to connect the gesture with the delivery of their favorite snack.
Make the sign by closing all of your fingers together on both hands (like a duck’s bill), keep them closed then tap both hands together. Your child might only use their palms like clapping their hands or just their index fingers at first. Just remember, when they make the sign, give them more. Make it more fun by smiling and giving them praise, saying, “You can have more! Good job signing more!”
“All done” is another early sign to teach your baby. If you’ve ever witnessed a baby throwing their food on the floor, scream-crying when you try to feed them a little more, or smushing the food down into the seat of their high-chair, then you get it. When babies are done, they are done, and that’s okay. Teaching them to communicate “all done” will save you a lot of headaches and cleanup. Honor their communication, and when they get hungry again, they will let you know.
Put both hands in front of you with your palms facing you. Flip your hands around with your palms facing out and say, “all done.” When mealtimes are over, you can say and sign “all done” so they know that a new activity is about to start.
Imagine that your Amazon order arrived and no matter how hard you tried, there was no opening the package. You’d likely be frustrated, upset, and maybe even angry. Now imagine this happening several times a day. We would likely not deal with it very well. Babies need our help a lot. When we give our babies a way to tell us that they need help with something, we open the door to a new experience for them. As your baby’s fine motor skills develop things will get easier, and they probably won’t need help as much. However, helping them figure out new toys, games, and activities teaches them that you are there for them and helps ease their frustration.
To sign “help,” put out one hand with the palm facing up. Put your other hand in a fist (the ASL sign for “A”). Place it with your pinky touching your palm, and raise both hands. Your baby’s sign may not match this exactly. A baby’s sign might look like putting two fists together, clasping hands, or something else.
Highly preferred items are likely going to be the first signs that your baby will understand and use. Because they are dependent on you to give them what they need, giving them ways to tell you what they want, before they can say it is such an amazing thing. Whether they are breastfeeding or drinking from a bottle, signing “milk” will be a go-to for your little one with practice and patience.
To sign “milk,” open and close your dominant hand into a fist and repeat twice, and say “milk.” Once your baby connects the sign “milk” with the delivery of their favorite beverage, they will likely use the sign several times a day.
Hunger and anger or hanger take on a whole new meaning when a baby is involved. Beware though, signing “eat” right before mealtimes may have a Pavlovian effect, as your already drooly baby may double in drool by the time the food hits the highchair tray. While learning to connect signs with actions or items, your baby may make mistakes now and then. They may sign eat, but not actually be hungry. They may sign all done, but freak out when you take the plate of food away. This is normal, remember that your baby is learning new things every day and they are bound to make mistakes.
To sign, “eat” make the ASL sign for “O” (hand closed) and tap fingers to mouth. Your baby may just put their hand to their mouth or their fingers in their mouth to sign “food” or “eat.”
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching Daniel Tiger and Margaret play “Wheels on the Trolley” then you’ve seen the “again” sign. This sign is helpful when your child wants to read a book again, hear a song again, or play with a toy again. Again is similar to more, and some children may use them interchangeably. However, as your child grows and their comprehension increases, using “more” for food, and “again” for activities will help them discriminate between the two.
To sign “again” lay one hand flat, and then place the other hand at an angle and tap the flat hand twice. “Again” can be used for experiences, like sliding again, swinging again, and painting again.
When your baby starts drinking water from a sippy cup, it’s another thing to remember and keep track of. According to the CDC, around six months of age, your baby can drink small amounts of water, around four to six ounces. Offer your child sips of water throughout the day. Giving your baby the ability to tell you they want a drink of water is a handy tool.
Make your dominant hand into the shape of the ASL sign “W” (similar to the gesture for three) and tap your lips. Your baby may sign by pointing into their mouths or just touching their mouths. Practice by giving your baby a drink and then prompting them to make the sign for water. Give them a drink, and make sure to praise their efforts with simple phrases like, “Water, yes, you can have water!”