How To Identify The Developmental Cues That Indicate Your Baby Is Ready To Start Signing

We as parents provide care to our babies knowing their basic needs. At first, that's just nourishment, keeping them clean and warm, and providing them contact and love. Eventually, at around four months, they're going to start looking around and their eyes will begin to explore the world around them. At around four months old your baby begins to focus, to be attracted to movement, and is able to recall objects and sounds.

During the next few months their scope expands. They start making sense of the noise and activity around them. They are drawn to objects that interest them, especially anything that is brightly colored, that has sound, that has an interesting shape, or that moves. They begin to recognize routine patterns that emerge in daily events and to notice the signs and words that accompany those events.

Your baby begins to understand the connection between the events and the language, whether that language is expressed in words or signs. They begin to register that certain events tend to happen together, such as their laughter and Mommy’s smiles, or when Mommy approaches and feeding time begins. Their ability to recognize a link between two events, or a sign/word and an event, is a milestone in their language development.

As this begins, it is a clue that babies are ready to begin noticing the connection between words and objects and/or signs and objects. Consider the process your child goes through when they learn to say ‘milk’. The sound ‘milk’ has no inherent meaning, but your baby quickly learns to associate that sound/word with the warm liquid substance they get when they are hungry. In this way, the sound of the word ‘milk’ becomes a reference for food, and as you say it to them over and over again, in context, they finally connect the sound to the object.

Learning to sign is the same process. If you repeatedly model the sign for MILK in context, your baby will eventually understand its reference to milk. Their first revelation arises when they discover the connection between them making the sign and your reaction to their sign. As they get results, their sign usage is reinforced, and their communication journey begins. Their ability to connect signs to their meaning develops step by step. Initial attempts to form signs may be a bit crude, but they will persist until they gain an acceptable level of accuracy. The more signs they see, the more they will use. The more signs they use, the more resourceful they will become as they use signs to navigate their way through life. These are their first steps to empowerment through language.

Moving From Signing To Speaking

It is certainly true that the ability to understand words develops around the same time as the ability to understand signs. However, the number of signs your baby can make at an early age dramatically exceeds the number of words they can enunciate clearly enough to be understood. Signs are so practical and useful during the early stages of communication that your baby will rely on them to satisfy their needs. As they begin to comprehend more about their world, they will be inspired to comment at greater length about the things they understand that are beyond their basic needs.

An instinctive desire to speak emerges. As they learn to speak, the signs become more and more unnecessary. The journey from signs to speech begins. At around 12 months of age many children attempt to say more and more words. Children begin saying words for the signs they know, and if misunderstood, use the signs for backup. Often, children who have a vocabulary of around 20 to 50 signs by the first year, start creating short, signed sentences from around the age of 14 to 17 months. I see many babies able to sign 100 signs by their 14th month. Stringing signs together in short sentences made up of nouns and verbs seems to take off during the second year. By the age of 18 months a signing child may well have a vocabulary of 300 words and/or signs compared to his non-signing peers’ average of between 10 and 50 words.

Research and my own observations while working with thousands of families have shown that signing accelerates rather than delays the onset of speech. I have never encountered anyone who has experienced any speech delays with their hearing babies after using signs.

This makes perfect sense because signing does not replace words—signing supports language development. When you use signs with your baby, you use the sign together with the word so that your baby can make the connection between the sign/ word and the object/action. It is not surprising that signing children speak sooner than their non-signing peers. While non-signing children are still waiting for their vocal mechanism to mature, signing children are learning how to identify and comment on objects and feelings. By the time non-signing children are discovering how to name these objects and feelings with words, signing children already have language firmly entrenched, and words are simply the next skill to master.

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