Baby signing is quite popular, and for good reason. You don’t even need a formal teaching system, flashcards, or a DVD for you or your child to get started. It’s a great way to get your child communicating and to decrease frustration. As popular as it is, there is still a myth going around that signing will prevent or delay your child from talking. Signing is not all that different from gesturing. Typically-developing kids use a variety of gestures before they start to say their first words. Most kids lift their arms before they say “up.” They wave before they say “hi” or “bye.” They point before they ask for anything by name. They may do movements to their favorite songs or rhymes. And none of these prevent a child from talking. As a matter of fact, the muscles in a child’s hands develop before the muscles they use for speech. A child will typically lift their arms to be picked up between 5 and 9 months, wave between 6 and 9 months, and point between 9 and 12 months. First words typically come in between 10 and 15 months. Because gestures develop before a child’s first birthday, a child can start to use baby signs even before they start talking.
At 5-6 months, you lay the foundation for your child to look at you signing, then around 8-9 months kids typically start to understand signs and even get excited when you sign about one of their favorite things. As early as 9-10 months, kids may start to use single signs, but there can be a big variation in when kids will start to sign. After that, they may start to expand their signed vocabulary to use more key words. Some kids will go even further and start to combine two signs together down the line.
Here are five steps you can take to teach simple signs to your child:
Step 1: Pick a few signs
Pick up to 5 signs for actions, objects and familiar wants and needs your child may have. Picking more than this can sometimes be overwhelming to kids. Don’t forget to pick words for things that not just you – but your child may want to convey and topics that come up on a regular basis in your child’s daily routine. There is no set list of signs to start with – each child and family will pick different signs and that’s the way it should be.
Once you know which words you want to sign, there are several great websites and books that can teach you how to make individual signs, such as ASLPro.com. Look at things your child tends to look, smile, or point at since they are items that your child will be motivated to learn the names of. Families often start with a sign related to mealtimes such as “milk” or “eat,” since they lend themselves well to repetition throughout the day. Also pick words for daily activities such as “bath” if it is an activity your child enjoys. Or signs for “dog” or “cat” or “bird” may be exciting to your child if you have a pet or see these things on your daily walk or in their favorite books.
A word of warning, though. Avoid teaching the sign for “more” until your child seems to learn a few other signs. Down the line, when a child starts to use the sign for “more” and doesn’t have any other signs or words, you’re still having to play “20 questions” to figure out what your child wants “more” of, and this can lead to frustration for both of you. Remember: the goal of signing is to increase communication and decrease frustration.
Step 2: Consistently talk and sign at the same time with your child
The next step is for you to use the signs every time you say the word to your child. Sometimes parents forget to talk and just sign to their children, but remember that signs are a bridge to spoken language and not a replacement. Use a word and sign to tell your child what you are about to do and as you are doing the activity or giving him or her the item. Be consistent with which signs you are using. For example, don’t interchange “milk” and “juice” and “drink” with each other. Pick one and stick with it. During your activity, try to use the word and sign at least five times – five often seems to be a magic number to help kids remember a word or sign. At this point in the process, don’t worry about your child imitating or using the sign on their own just yet. This will come later.
Step 3: See if your child is starting to understand signs
As your child gets better at shifting their attention between your face as you say a word and your hands as you sign that word, start to pause for a few seconds before you show them the item or start the activity. Wait expectantly (which means smile, lean in, wait with an excited look on your face) to see if they start to show that they understand the word and sign in some way. They may look toward where you keep the item or the room where you do that activity. They may smile, point, get excited or look around for the item you just mentioned. When your child start to do these actions, it shows they are starting to understand your message.
Step 4: Sign and then wait expectantly for them to imitate
Once kids start to understand the signs you are using, some will automatically start to imitate your signs. Others will need for you to wait expectantly and for you to give them more wait time (even up to 5-10 seconds) before they will imitate. Sometimes, if you start to make a sign but don’t complete it, this will be enough for a child to finish the sign. For the most part, you shouldn’t need to take a child’s hands and make them do the sign with help. I recommend avoiding giving hand-over-hand help to make a sign because kids can learn to wait for someone to take their hands and do the signing for them. If they’re not yet signing on their own, they may just need more time.
Step 5: Show your child the item or activity and wait
This is very often the point where kids will start to use their signs on their own. As you show them their cup and wait, they may start to make the sign for “milk.” As you put them in their highchair, they may sign “eat.” As their evening comes to an end, they may start to sign “bath” because they know that is the next step in their routine. Remember that not all kids will start to sign before they start talking. And not all kids will form a sign clearly. But when a child starts to sign those first few signs back to you, you can start to teach them some more signs. Also remember, a little kid’s signs may be a little less refined compared to how adults make the same sign. Because of this, some of their early signs may look like each other. Signs for “eat” and “drink” may look similar. “More” and “ball” may look very similar when a small child is learning a new sign. Make sure when you pick new signs to pick ones that look different from each other to prevent this confusion. Also, pay attention to the situation or context in which your child is using the sign to help you figure out their message.
Remember, when your child gets to signing, it’s okay to tell them “no” when their request is not appropriate. You don’t have to give-in to every demand. They are going to have to learn “no” sometime, and as long as you offer them an appropriate choice or alternative to what they asked for, you’re still honoring their communicative message and not stifling their development.
As a child’s vocabulary gets larger, you can start to teach them words and signs for a variety of parts of speech to help them put two words or signs together in short phrases. Be sure to include vocabulary such as action words (e.g., eat, sit, jump, dance) or descriptive words (e.g., pretty, silly) to go with nouns and names of objects. This is sometimes a good time to teach a few social words such as “please” as well. When kids learn “please” any sooner, it doesn’t really have any meaning to them.
And a final reminder, if you are teaching a child a word and sign and your child starts to say a the word, give them praise for talking! Sometimes we can focus so hard on teaching a child to sign, we forget to get as excited when their child tries to say the word. Accept any type of communication – be it a gesture, a sign, or a baby-version of a spoken word. If a child says “dah” for “dog” – give them credit!
If your child is past 15-18 months and not yet signing, talking, or imitating words – don’t hesitate to talk to your pediatrician and see if anything should be done to keep an eye on your child’s communication development. For some, a referral to a speech-language pathologist or early intervention program at this point may be appropriate.