By Sara Bingham
Why sign with your baby? The cheeky answer to that question is why not? Julie Roberts did it, Debra Messing did it, and Nicole Ritchie plans to do it. As informed parent though I know you want more than just what’s trendy, you want the facts.
Using American Sign Language with Babies
Signing with your baby, using American Sign Language vocabulary along with your speech, will not delay your baby’s speech and language development. Studies show that it can enhance language development.
The area of a baby’s brain that is responsible for understanding what is seen (visual area) develops before the area that is responsible for what is heard (auditory area). This means that babies can understand what is being shown to them earlier than what is said to them. So if you consistently show your baby the sign for MILK while saying the word, it is most likely the case at 4-5 months that she’ll be calming down because she understands what she is seeing, not necessarily what she is hearing, yet. Keep in mind that all babies develop differently though.
The gross motor ability to sign starts developing around 6-7 months (every baby is different) while the finer motor skills need for speech develop from 12 months onward. This of how easy it is to sign FISH, one hand moving as if imitating the tail of a fishing swimming. My son signed this at 9 months. He started attempting to say it at 12 months, /pish/, and it wasn’t until he was two years that he clearly said /fish/
Using American Sign Language with Toddlers and Older Children
During the terrible two’s most of the challenging behaviours that occur happen because a toddler can’t make themselves understood (and they are transitioning out of naps!). She wants your attention, and can’t get it appropriately; she wants to escape a situation (e.g., diaper changing) and can’t do it appropriately; she wants something and can’t communicate this effectively and/or appropriately. Sign allows toddlers to communicate clearly and appropriately – no more 20 questions and melt downs are lessened.
Sign also allows you to communicate with your family is places where you need to be quiet, at church or at the library. It allows you to communicate through glass windows.
I remember giving my children, who were in the backyard, instructions while in the house one winter. I signed “STOP. NO SNOW on DOG. SHOVEL DOWN!”
I signed “I LOVE YOU” to them when I dropped them off at gymnastics today as well – they were in the gym already and I was in the parent viewing room and we were separated by glass.
I can sign to my son when he’s on the hockey rink. He started to laugh so hard when he realized he couldn’t sign “I LOVE YOU” back with hockey gloves on!
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Sara Bingham is the author of The Baby Signing Book and the founder of WeeHands, a sign language program with instructors across North America. She is a frequent contributor to parenting magazines and baby-related professional websites.
Since 2001, WeeHands has taught over 5000 families, child care staff and other caregivers across North America to sign with their infants and toddlers. In our classes qualified WeeHands instructors teach parents how to use American Sign Language vocabulary, songs and language development strategies with their baby, toddler and preschool children.