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The First Year: Baby Sign Language

Baby sign language has been a great way for us to communicate with our little man, and best of all, for him to let us know what he wants. We first heard about baby sign language from my sister-in-law when she taught her son, T, how to sign. Some of my most vivid memories are of T clapping to sign for poopie and signing for milk. Now that T is older, my sister-in-law reflected that teaching him sign language has improved communication and reduced T's frustrations.

The baby sign language referred to here is America Sign Language (ASL). We teach our little man ASL as it is commonly understood in North America. Many of the signs are intuitive, the sign for "milk" looks like you are milking a cow and "Banana" looks like you are peeling a banana.

When I was pregnant, we decided this was one of the things we wanted to do with our baby. Since the little man was 3 months old, I would sign to him "milk" before I nursed him. It was around 6 months when the little man started signing "milk". Incredible, the little man signed back!

Urged by this success, we started teaching him more sign language. Currently, the little man can sign the following: "poopie" (so we could potty train him), "more", "water", "banana", "eat", "all done", "fan", "yucky" and the most recent ones he uses are "wash hands" and "book". We are currently learning the signs for "please", "thank you" and "again".

What To Expect and What To Do

1. Be consistent
  • The key to teaching baby sign language is consistency. Engage your baby and make eye contact when you are signing. Associate items and actions with signing, such as signing milk and then feeding your baby. It takes a lot of practice as well as persistence but it will pay off. You will be amazed how quickly your baby starts signing. 
 2. Expect imperfection
  • As I mentioned above, our nephew T clapped when he wanted to go poopie. Our little man points one finger (instead of three) for water. We sign to him the correct way to remind him of those other two fingers; you never know when tall man and ring man decide to show up.
3. Talk and sign
  • When you sign a word, enunciate the word clearly so they can also benefit from hearing the word. 
4. Sing and sign
  • Babies love music and not only will singing hold their attention, it will help them learn the signs and associate the signs with words.
5. Be selective
  • Teach signs that have meaning to you or are useful in your daily activities. If you have a dog, teach your baby how to sign "dog".
  • "Eat", "more", "milk" are a few useful signs to start learning together.
  • Select a few signs to teach your baby at a time. Once they mastered the sign, move on to other ones.

6. Be creative
  • Combine signs to create short sentences. The little man signs "poopie" "all done" or "eat" "banana". The funniest one I recall was when he signed "poopie" "eat". I had to bite my lip not to laugh too hard.
  • Ask family members or childcare providers to sign to your baby to reinforce the signs.
7. Have fun
  • I have always wanted to learn sign language and never had a chance to until we had the little man. Signing is great fun, especially when the baby is sleeping in your arms and you want to tell your husband you want something to drink and eat.

Interested in Learning?

Many community centres offer drop-in baby sign language classes for mom and babies. Since we are not known for being punctual for classes, we opted to learn sign language on our own through smartphone apps and online videos. The smartphone apps are great for quickly looking up how to sign a certain word when you are out and about.

There are also songs you can sing and sign at the same time. The little man's favorite song to sign and sing is "The More We Get Together". We sing and sign this song while reading the book by Caroline Jayne Church. If you would like to see how to sign along while singing this song, the Skokie Public Library has a Youtube video showing you how.

Here are some great resources to get you started:

Happy signing!

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