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My sister taught her children sign language right from the start and the impact it had for developing her kids’ communication skills stuck with me. I knew when the time came for me to have children, I would teach them sign language early on.
Of course, the first step would be for me to learn it myself.
So when the time came (I started after my son was 6 months, based on recommendations), I did what every new mom does when she has an important question. I googled it. I looked up baby sign language and there are a lot of sites that show you the most common signs and how to sign each. Brief videos accompany each. I recommend the site Start ASL, because it walks you through the process, tells you the basic signs to start with (including video tutorials), and offers tips on trouble shooting. There’s also an awesome blog post on teaching infants sign language here.
It seems like a simple, easy to implement tool, right? As someone not known for patience, the first three months were the most challenging. I felt like a dum dum trying to use signs as my baby either wailed in exasperation, or in the quieter moments, looked at me like I was a lunatic. But after the first few months we began to see progress.
My son’s first sign was “book” at around nine months. When you see your baby sign for the first time, it’s just as exciting as his first word. I was squealing with delight and calling out to my husband to see for himself. The learning snowballed from there. The next few signs were “up”, when he wanted to be held, followed by “more”, “milk” and “dada”. By the time he was about a year, he also had words like “wind”, “rain”, and “car” down too.
My son began speaking his first words around a year. Interestingly, his first spoken word was “ball”, something he didn’t sign until months later. I believe, and scientific research backs this up, that signing has helped him communicate words he wasn’t quite ready to speak, but did not limit his speech development in any way.
My sister is a speech therapist. She recommended the video series Baby Signing Time! and Signing Time! She already had the DVDs and gave them to us. My son adores these videos, and the progress he’s made has been incredible. They’re short, so I don’t feel too much guilt about putting him in front of a screen for 20 minutes, and they’re interactive. Parents are suppose to watch and interact with their child during the show, not just plop them in front of the TV (okay, true confession… sometimes I do). But for parents who aren’t well versed in sign language themselves (c’est moi!), this is a an educational tool for us too! After all, what good is teaching your baby sign language if you aren’t familiar with a lot of the signs yourself?
Which brings up an interesting point. My son goes to daycare twice a week. The other day I mentioned to one of his new teachers that we’ve been working on his sign language skills for more than a year. She looked at me with a blank stare, as this was all news to her. This tore me up inside. Twice a week my son is probably signing his heart out to these teachers who are either not paying any attention or are just clueless as to what he’s trying to tell them. The same goes for extended family and babysitters watching my son. They probably are missing his signs altogether. I imagine that is frustrating and disheartening to my son, but I can’t force everyone around me to learn sign language just for him (or can I? Insert evil laugh here…)
My son is talking a lot more, so signs are not as crucial as they used to be. But he still uses them for words he hasn’t mastered, like “cracker”, “grandma/grandpa”, and “wash hands”. And I think sign language will remain important during this young age with more challenging words, or communicating with us when he’s upset.
I’m no speech expert, but sign language has been a wonderful gift for my family. I’m looking forward to introducing it to our next baby, as well.
If you have experience with baby sign language, I would love to hear your success stories or even setbacks.