It's time to address the tendency among new parents using sign language with their babies to use three signs, EAT, MILK, and MORE, and then stop introducing more signs. From the baby’s perspective, imagine being trapped in a world where you can only express three things—especially at a time when the whole world is opening up and you are starting to understand the world around you. Not only is this troubling, but the WAY that many caregivers present the signs does not offer the child the ability to discover the signs and their meanings through the child’s internal resources. When infants use those internal resources, they advance their capability to affect their surrounding through their own language resources.
Children begin to build confidence and see their potential to navigate through life. Using their skills of observation and association, babies will connect the signs—when delivered in the correct format—to the various topics, feelings, emotions, and objects. It's important that the signs are presented to the baby in a way that allows that discovery and implementation process to happen.
This is the reason I developed the 14 Days to Baby Sign Language program. The program is carefully designed to present the signs in a way that allows a child to discover and draw upon their internal resources as they discover and use signs. Presenting the signs in the appropriate format allows the child to clearly associate the feeling, the object, or the situation to the gesture/sign that the parent offers. However, signs must be presented at the right time and in an opportune situation. This is the failing of many baby sign language programs. Although they offer signs to parents, there's no process describing the most efficient and effective way to introduce them and promote child development. The whole idea of signing with babies is not because it's cute. Signing really fosters important foundational language development in babies as they discover signs and start to express themselves through signing.
One mother wrote to me and told me how she had taught EAT, MILK, and MORE to her baby. One day, the baby wanted applesauce—which the mother finally figured out after a crying and screaming fit. The event began with the mother signing MILK to her son knowing he was hungry. Everytime the mother would sign MILK, the baby would cry.
The baby was crying because he wanted applesauce but didn’t know the sign for applesauce. He could not ask for applesauce. He only knew the sign for MILK. So, when the mother kept signing MILK, the baby kept thinking, “No I don't want MILK, I want applesauce!” But he didn't know how to express that so he could only cry. Mom finally offered applesauce, and everything was fine. And upon learning the sign for applesauce (apple), future “applesauce fits” were averted and the child had one more way(sign) to express his needs.
This is why it's important to offer the signs for all the things that your babies are interested in or like. That way, they can actually express their thoughts and their desires for different things. It's also important to know what frightens your baby. We taught the FEAR sign, (the SCARE sign) whenever there was a loud sharp noise or something startled us. I would sign SCARE at the appropriate time and as a result, when the baby came to a book with a picture that would frighten him, he would want to quickly turn the page. That helped me understand more about my child, his fears, and how I can help develop his ability to express those feelings.
This is why I put care and the knowledge of my many years of child development study and the cognitive process in learning language and how to best help a child navigate that process to provide them with the internal capacity to see their potential to affect their environment. It’s hard to affect your surroundings only armed with EAT, MILK, and MORE.