There are a number of benefits to using sign language with babies, toddlers and preschool children. Some of there include, but are definitely no limited to: enhanced vocabulary development, fewer frustrations during the "terrible twos" and enhanced parent-child bond.
When a baby's brain develops the area that understands visual information develops sooner than the area that understands auditory information, so a younger baby may be able to understand what they see earlier than they can understand what they hear. Adding the visual component, the sign, to the auditory component, your spoken words, may help babies to understand more. This may improve their receptive language abilities.
Children learn language by interacting with others. When they interact, they are able to make mistakes, get corrective feedback, learn and expand their skills. I can remember a time when my own daughter was about 13 months old. She has been signing since she was 11 months old and had about 5-6 signs.
One of her favourite signs (and play objects) was BALL. One day she pointed to an orange on the counter and signed BALL. I followed her lead and picked up the orange and showed her the sign for ORANGE. She looked at me like I was crazy and signed BALL back to me! I quickly peeled and cut up the orange into little pieces, gave her a piece and signed ORANGE. This was her first bite of orange and she loved it! I must have given her 30 little bits of this new fruit and signed ORANGE each time. Towards the end of the orange she was signing ORANGE back to me to request another piece of her new favourite thing to eat!
The mistake she made, introduced an opportunity for me to teach and she then learned a new word. A word is a word, whether it’s signed or spoken! There were countless times that our interactions in sign led to learning opportunities, because she could sign before she could teach. For example she once pointed to a thermostat and signed “LIGHT”. I took that as an opportunity to teach her the sign for “WARM”. By the time she was 16 months of age, she had 80+ words: 20 verbal words and 60 ASL signs. Most babies at 16 months of age have 10 spoken words.
Fewer Frustrations & Challenging Behaviours
Babies and toddlers are able to express emotions and will eventually point or gesture towards things that they want. These are language milestones we’ve all gone through. When a toddler is able to use sign language before their speech develops clearly they are able to be clearly understood. Their symbolic language, their signs, is much clearer than vocalizing or pointing.
Many of the challenging behaviours that you see during the ‘terrible twos’ period is because a toddler isn’t understood and is unable to clearly help you understand them. If a baby is pointing at the top of the fridge and clearly wants something there, a parent may need to play 20 questions to find out what is wanted. If a baby can sign ‘BANANA” because she’s sees the bananas that a peeking out from behind two boxes of cereal.
When a toddler can sign, when their speech is not yet clear, to make a request, e.g., signing “WANT MILK”; get your attention, e.g., signing “MOMMY LOOK” or to escape a situation, e.g., signing “FOOD FINISHed. UP?”, less challenging behaviours will be seen.
Improved Parent–Child Relationships
A number of moms from my past classes have stopped me in parking lots and coffee shops to share their stories just on this topic. After taking a baby sign language class with me with their babies, they felt the need two years later to thank me and to let me know that their toddlers seem so calm and happy because they are understood. Calm and happy toddlers make calm and happy parents!
I remember clearly the times that my son at 11 or 12 months would sign for something that he wanted, e.g., a COOKIE or a drink of MILK. Often times, I could tell from his face that he was happy that he got what he wanted but I could really tell from his smile and the sparkle in his eye that he was so proud that he could make himself understood.
Signing with babies and, especially, toddlers allows parents to more clearly understand their children. Any time you are able to clearly communicate with another person in your life you are able to connect with them and those continual connections bring you closer together. Signing with babies, toddlers and preschool children also parents and other caregivers to get to know and connect with their children earlier and with more clarity.
Sara Bingham is the author of the award-winning 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 qualified instructors have taught thousands of families and caregivers across North America to sign with their infants and toddlers.