The day my son approached me while signing ‘more’ both shocked and intrigued me. After all, I’d never thought about teaching him baby sign language, yet he was determined to communicate with me in this way. When I asked his daycare teachers about it the next day, they let me know they begin teaching toddlers sign language as another form of communication. I hadn’t even considered asking the daycare provider if that would be a part of the toddler curriculum.
Now, my son confidently signs ‘more’ while pointing to what he wants and leading me to it. However, neither my partner nor I considered teaching him other signs until one of my aunts mentioned to me, “I’m surprised you haven’t taught Xavier sign language. I feel if anyone would do that, it would be you.” It made me ask myself why I wasn’t reinforcing what my son learned in daycare at home.
If you are also looking to teach your baby signs, we’re here to help! We spoke with Laura Payne, Baby ASL Teacher & Expert to share the benefits of baby sign language and how you can introduce baby sign language to your little ones.
The Difference Between American Sign Language (ASL) and Baby Sign Language
“Historically baby sign language has been thought of as a simplified version of American Sign Language (ASL),” said Laura. However, she wants parents to know teaching your infants sign language doesn’t have to be thought of separately from ASL. Not only that, but she said ASL is a full language that’s primarily used throughout North America.
“More importantly, ASL isn’t a universal language, so different cultures or countries may use different signs. Also, there are some signs that don’t have an English translation,” Laura said. With baby sign language, you’re essentially teaching your little one ASL signs to help them communicate in a way that you can understand. Instead of using a full sentence structure of ASL, you’re only signing one to three words within a sentence.
The Benefits of Baby Sign Language
From the time infants are born, they not only try to communicate with us, they want to. “What’s interesting about infants is that the right hemisphere of their brain is more developed than the left. The right is where things like emotions, impulses and non-verbal communication are housed,” Laura said. In short, baby sign language gives little ones a way to communicate more clearly with their caregivers.
Laura also said utilizing sign language as another form of communication is beneficial for you and your child because it helps lessen frustration for everyone.”Even though I have a background in Deaf Education, it still amazes me to see how I’m able to navigate tantrums and redirect them with my young children,” Laura said.
…utilizing sign language as another form of communication is beneficial for you and your child because it helps lessen frustration for everyone.
She went on to share a story about her 3-year-old daughter who experienced a meltdown and couldn’t verbalize what was wrong. Instead of allowing herself to become frustrated, which is normal, Laura decided to try using sign language to ask her daughter what was wrong. To her surprise, her daughter signed back and let her know there was an ant in her shoe.
“Imagine if I would have lost my temper over an ant,” Laura said with a laugh.
How Early Can Parents Teach Baby Sign Language?
While infants aren’t independent, especially newborns, they are ready to learn when you’re ready to begin teaching them. “Parents can actually start teaching sign language as early as 3-5 months because they can start recognizing and responding to signs,” Laura said. But, this doesn’t mean you have to begin the process at that point, especially if you’re sleep deprived, adjusting to having a new child, or experiencing postpartum depression/anxiety.
“It’s okay if you start teaching your child how to sign at a later age. My goal is to teach parents how to use their child’s age to help recognize their needs and wants,” Laura said.
Which Signs Should Parents Teach First?
Like other forms of communication, it helps to begin teaching your infant signs that cover their basic needs or desires. Depending on your little one’s age, what you begin teaching them may vary.
Signs for Infants
If you have an infant, you can begin teaching them how to sign when they want milk, need a diaper change, are sleepy, or would like their parent’s attention. As Laura stated above, these are things an infant is more likely to be concerned with during the first few months of their lives.
Signs for Toddlers
“A toddler may be more focused on their interests as opposed to an 8-month-old who wants to tell you they’re ready to eat,” Laura said. Also, she said you can focus on functional signs that can be used in everyday settings.
For parents who are unfamiliar with it or unsure of where to begin, Laura also offers the Look Who’s Signing Now course. This course benefits infants and toddlers up to 2- years-old because it starts with their basic needs (as mentioned above). “It uses common phrases, such as words related to an evening or bath time routine, to help you move you and your child’s day forward,” Laura said. The vocabulary is important for them to understand, but so is having the strategies to navigate different scenarios that come up while your child is learning.
We know how hard it can be to figure out what your child wants, even when all of their needs have been met. Teaching little ones baby sign language is one way to bridge that communication gap and hopefully lead to less frustration for parents and their little ones.