When showing signs to your baby, the most important question to ask yourself is, what sign will best allow communication between him and me? Obviously, an ASL (American Sign Language) sign is preferable, and most ASL signs work well, but some may require using specific finger movements that may be too complex for a very young child to make.
In this case, it is best to make the sign, and watch for your child’s version to emerge. Take note of how your baby approximates the sign. The hand will most likely correctly move, but it’s the specific finger shapes she will have trouble making. If you make up a sign, or your child makes up a sign for a word that has an ASL version, use the baby’s alternative sign. Then, as your child’s dexterity develops, slowly add the correct ASL sign alongside the alternative sign.
With time she will realize that both signs carry the same intended meaning, and then you can drop the alternative sign. Always acknowledge your baby’s creative nature and adopt any sign she creates. As you find the correct ASL version, parallel the two versions for a while and eventually drop the non-ASL version. In our family, we tended to keep the baby’s version and just remembered and used some of those signs until much later in our children’s lives. Remembering only one or two baby created signs was not difficult. We also made drawings of them for grandparents and other caregivers.
In the event that you are worried about embarrassing your baby in public, I generally recommend that you reinforce the sign with the word so that your baby can clearly hear and see the connection between the two. However, there are occasions when signs become effective without the spoken words—for example, during peaceful moments, or later in your child’s life when you do not wish to embarrass him in public. (Like reminding him to go to the bathroom before an event.)
In some homes, signing SIT DOWN without articulating the words usually brings the required result. In addition, a simple look and a subtle use of the sign STOP could bring a more-or-less immediate halt to inappropriate behavior, while having the added benefit of preventing you from having to charge across the room.
Signing without words is also helpful when toilet-training your toddler. On the occasions when your child is out and about, he will often get so caught up in the excitement of the moment that an accident may occur before he is even aware of what is happening. As I mentioned, a sign can be a subtle reminder; with it you can avoid having to put him on the spot in front of friends.
Signs should not become more than delicate reminders. Parents must take care not to begin using signs as a disciplinary tool. I heard reports that some parents did this with their children aged two and under, and rightly caused some consternation.
It was always believed that babies did not sign with other babies because social play among children tends to develop when they are around two years old (about the same time that they start to talk). However, I have seen and received several accounts from various baby-signing parents who have stated otherwise—namely, that their babies have used, or at least understood, signs made by other babies. This would make sense since children tend to adopt behavior that they observe in other children. Children may also use some signs with dolls or other toys. Of course, older signing children will dramatically influence your baby’s signing.
No, not at all. Because signing is visual, it actually assists your baby in seeing the connection between the two differently pronounced words. Research shows that it does not matter how many different languages you bring into your home. Your child may initially mix them up, but with adequate exposure, will eventually become fluent in all of them. Multiple–language production may require a little more mental processing time. Signs become a wonderful common denominator between several languages. The sign for EAT can be said many ways, but the sign always looks like eating.
At some stage of your baby-signing journey, you may stumble on what I call a “baby-signing block” that will have you scratching your head with frustration. You may very well find, for example, that although you have been signing to your baby for three months she is not signing back, or that she seems to be signing but the signs look nothing like yours.
If you are following my program and this happens, comfort yourself—you are doing nothing wrong! And neither is your baby. Every child is different and they learn and produce signs at their own pace. Your child is processing language in her brain. That process takes time. Be patient—and keep signing.
We’ve been showing her signs for a long time now…
Just because your baby is not signing back does not mean that she is not taking it all in. Much of her learning takes place long before she displays any indication that she is learning anything. Her little mind is absorbing, developing and increasing her understanding of the world around her. Every waking moment can produce new perceptions for a baby. As she experiences an event again and again, she develops a visual record, connecting the event to the words and the signs you are making. The more consistent you are when making the signs, the faster she will make the connection. Be patient and never show disappointment. Eventually, she will begin to understand what the signs mean, and when she is ready she will begin to replicate them. The learning process for signing is similar to the learning process for speaking.
Babies develop at different speeds. The onset and amount of language expressed are dependent on factors such as individual personality, the learning environment, and how comprehensively significant people in the child’s life reinforce the vocabulary. Continuous exposure to the signs and a positive attitude in parenting dynamics greatly contribute to learning. Even though waiting for language to emerge may be frustrating for both you and your child, it is perfectly normal. It is important not to push language on a child. Let the child discover language and its use through her needs, and then she will expand from there. A child may become hesitant if she feels she must perform. At a time when your child is concentrating on learning something else—how to crawl, for instance—she may wait until one skill is solidly attained before beginning a new adventure.
Here is another consideration in the event your baby in not signing yet. After eight or nine months of parenting most of us are such good parents, and so good at predicting our children’s needs, that from the child’s perspective there may be very little reason to sign. Parents tend to meet their children’s requests all too eagerly, before the children have had a chance to engage their little minds and then ask for themselves. Although a parent should never withhold care pending sign production from a child, allowing a few seconds of space and setting up situations that promote sign usage is advantageous to development. Each successful engagement is dramatically important in relation to the next. If you never provide situations that encourage communication, none will result.
You feel you can anticipate her needs, which is great. Now you can use your anticipation as a tool. When you notice that your child is thirsty, for instance, instead of handing her a drink, pour it and set it slightly out of reach, in her sight-line. Using the sign, ask her if she would like a drink—and allow a few seconds for a response—never long enough for her to become frustrated, but long enough for her to remember what to do to obtain the drink. This approach is an essential part of assisting her to expand her communication skills.
Something else you could try, if an opportunity arises, is to show older children who associate with your child the signs you want your baby to learn. The fastest way to jump-start a baby into communication is to get her to interact with an older sibling or another child with signing skills. Studies show that given equal time, a baby can learn to sign from a young signer faster than she can from an adult.
This is not an uncommon situation when your baby has learned a few signs and is excited about something. Keep making the signs correctly and in context. With time and repetition, she will eventually learn to differentiate between the signs. Meanwhile, keep alert to the things that do achieve success and use those to make progress. Communication will improve in time and be well worth your patience.