Learning Sign Language With Your Baby
Learning sign language is like expanding on your own gestures “with a twist.” Talking with our hands is a natural way to communicate. We point, wave “good bye,” and put out your hand to indicate “stop!” Why is this a good idea to use with your baby? It gives your baby a visual clue as to what you are trying to say. When you can’t find your keys to the car, isn’t it helpful if someone points to where they are and tells you where to look? Sign language works that way for babies, too. It also helps them to attend to you. If you are flicking your fingers or motioning with your hands, they have something to look at while hearing the words you are using. It also increases cognitive flexibility – it’s a brain booster! Your child is boosting his neural activity by using his sight and hearing at the same time.
Don’t worry that your child will not talk and only sign if you incorporate sign language. This is far from the truth. Speech is much easier and more versatile than sign language. Research has proven that signing helps trigger the connection between hearing and associating the meaning of the word. Babies learn quickly that when they sign the word “more,” they get more food put on their plate. In fact, it can be very helpful for speech if a child is slower in developing his muscular and nervous systems. Signing can reduce his frustration for meeting his needs by gesturing for what he wants.
You will need to approach sign language as if you are learning a foreign language – after you learn a sign, you have to practice it. It is easiest to take baby sign language classes, buy a DVD, or use a book that includes easy signs that you can use with your baby (like My Baby Compass, Birth to Two and Two to Four). You don’t have to be accurate with your signs, just consistent. You will also begin to recognize that your child will have his own way of making the sign for certain items. Practicing in front of a mirror lets you see what the sign looks like, while allowing you to check the way in which you make them. I remember learning Spanish. I was so proud of myself when I talked to a young couple with my Spanish, and then they answered. Oops – I wasn’t ready for that! I only knew how to speak the language, not how to understand what they were saying. So, signs can look different to you when someone signs back. It is because we use different parts of the brain to process the information.
You won’t be learning many signs….maybe 20 or at the most 50. Think about it. Babies have a vocabulary of maybe one to seven words at one year of age, and it increases to 50 by the time they are 18 to 24 months.
So get started with your baby and have fun. The fact that you are willing to learn something new may be a brain booster for you too! If you need some ideas, refer to My Baby Compass, Birth to Two or Two to Four.
– Kathryn Thorson Gruhn, MA CCC-SLP, author of My Baby Compass series