by Claire C. McKiernan
I shamefully admit that I did not get into signing with my baby until I had my fourth child. (This confession is also my disclaimer that I am not an expert, but a more recent convert sharing her experience and advice, for whatever that’s worth.) I had an initial interest in signing with my firstborn, but at the time I was reading articles indicating that signing with kids might delay speech. Additionally, my chatty first born was speaking in sentences at 15 months, so it seemed unnecessary, and I dropped the idea. When I had my first three children in the space of four years, time sped by, and I just didn’t get the chance to revisit the topic. I’m sorry I didn’t.
As it turns out, the theory that signing delays speech is spectacularly wrong. I had known this for a couple years, but it wasn’t until I had my fourth child, Rosie, that my interest was renewed. When she was not yet a year old, I stumbled upon a used book for sale at the library titled Sign with Your Baby by Dr. Joseph Garcia. I found it so fascinating and provocative that I picked up my interest where I had left off seven years earlier. Delightfully, studies show that signing helps children to speak earlier since they realize early on the wonderful benefits of clear communication. As it happens, the author of the book I found, Dr. Garcia, was one of the pioneers of baby signing back in the 1970’s, and he teaches true-to-ASL signs (American Sign Language).
Likely your main goal is early communication with your baby. Prior to having Rosie, I had seen friends use the basics (more, please, and thank you), and I had used the potty sign with all my babies with the result that at eight months of age my son signed to me that he had to poop (see my article Give Infant Potty Training a Try! posted on the blog May 6, 2012, if you want to learn more.) He only did it sporadically, though (the potty sign, that is, not the pooping). I noticed with Rosie that she was not only a great mimic, but she had invented her own signs for nursing and dirty diapers. After reading Garcia’s book, Rosie and I were officially signing in no time. I soon purchased a DVD which increased my vocabulary as well as confirmed that I was making the hand motions correctly (somewhat more difficult with a book).
Rosie’s favorite signs to use were hungry, more, drink, milk, please, and stop (the latter she used with great frequency and delight on her siblings at the slightest provocation). She was also able to tell me where it hurt when she got a bump or a bruise. I used the signs cold, thunder, rain, help, done, all gone, where, hurt, cry, eat, drink, no touch, hot, and burn (the last three I often used together while she watched me cook or when we used our fireplace). I always spoke the words along with the signs, and sometimes she would learn the signs and sometimes she would speak the words. The signs came in handy when she was attempting to say a word, so I knew exactly what she was trying to say and could then help her with the pronunciation. Fortunately, babies have a strong desire to communicate and sign language achieves this early goal, but it also does much, much more.
Bonding and Brain Power
As with any new skill you teach, or learn along with, your child, sign language is a bonding experience. You are more intent on watching your child, looking him in the eye, and observing his entire body language when signing rather than chatting absently to him while you are busy doing something else. Not surprisingly, all this bonding and learning is stimulating his brain: those synapses are firing like crazy (watch out for sparks). Studies have shown that youngsters who have learned to sign not only speak sooner than their non-signing peers, but have larger vocabularies, and score higher on IQ tests.
So now you have a smart, bonded, communicative child…but wait! There’s more!
It’s a Family Thing
My kids and husband very quickly and happily picked up on the signs I was teaching. My four-year-old, in particular, enjoyed signing and watching the video with me. It was not only educational for all of us, but it has come in handy several times with the older kids. You know that sign people make when they want to say “I’m watching you” by pointing at their own eyes and then pointing at the other person? Kind of threatening, isn’t it? Imagine how much clearer the communication is to sign “Stop! Sit down!” when you don’t want to disrupt people around you (library, movie theater, when you are on the phone, etc.) but need to correct unruly behavior. Kids respond more cooperatively to sign language than being yelled at (wouldn’t you?)
Fun and Effective!
The best part of signing? It’s just plain F-U-N! It’s easy to learn and so exciting to see your baby eagerly pick up on it! “More, please” was probably the first expression Rosie got down pat. To see her little eyes light up and the grin on her face when I understood what she wanted was priceless. Now, at 2.5 years of age, she has a huge verbal vocabulary, and she only uses sign language for emphasis. If she tells me she is hungry and I don’t immediately respond, she will stretch up that adorable little neck and stroke it to show me her throat is empty and in need of food while saying “Mommy, I’m hungrrrrry!” The addition of the sign language is so emphatic that you would think she had just stumbled into the house after being lost in the desert for a week. And let me tell you, that emphasis is pretty darn effective: if she asked me to bake a seven layer cake at that moment, I’d do it.
Google “baby signing” or “American Sign Language”, search for it at the library, amazon.com, or your favorite bookstore and you will find plenty of books and videos available, not to mention classes. I’m not going to recommend anything I haven’t looked at, so here’s a list of what I’ve used, and beyond that, my only suggestion is to use baby signing that is based on ASL. Why learn made-up signs for babies when you can learn a real language?
Book: Sign with Your Baby by Joseph Garcia
DVD: Baby Sign Language Basics by Monta Z. Briant (Dr. Garcia also has DVDs available.)
Internet: www.sign2me.com (this is Dr. Garcia’s website and is a great starting point to learn more.)