Baby sign language: A guide on ways to communicate with your baby

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The purpose of baby sign language should never be to replace actual spoken language, but simply to supplement it. Here's how you can do it.

You’ll be surprised to know that your baby can communicate with you without saying a singe word. Yes, baby sign language is very much real.

It makes sense when you realise that babies’ motor skills and understanding of language develop faster that their ability to speak. You see this in action when your baby easily waves “hello” and “goodbye,” even before they are able to say those words. 

Many parents look to baby sign language, or baby signing, to help their little ones communicate their needs before they can actually talk. 

Baby sign language is the brainchild of child development expert Joseph Garcia. He observed babies of deaf parents, and noticed that they could easily express their needs through sign language. Interestingly, this ability to sign also made them less demanding and more expressive. 

Mums and dads, you too can enjoy the benefits of baby signing. The most valuable benefit probably is that your baby will finally be able to express himself without resorting to a tantrum (well, most of the time)!  

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Baby sign language: Benefits of teaching your kids how to express their needs

Let’s first address the most important thing here. Baby sign language isn’t a full-blown language. These are just signs that you can use with your baby to express an activity or a command.

In cases where the baby is unable to hear or if the parents are deaf, they can be taught sign language (American Sign Language). But generally, baby sign language (baby signing) includes pointing at objects of interest, symbolic gestures and responding to these symbolic gestures. 

All of these are a good way to begin communication with a baby. 

Some people think that teaching their baby sign language might hinder his verbal skills. But the latest research states the contrary. A paper published by the US National Library of Medicine shares that “there may be benefits to teaching sign language to young children who have not yet developed vocal language.”

It revealed that signing could also lead to better caregiving on the part of the parents. In addition, signing may actually help your child speak faster and add to his growing vocabulary. But these are not the only benefits. 

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1. You will feel less frustrated 

You can begin by teaching your baby signs for “drink” (taking your thumb to mouth and tilting your head backwards) or “eat” (bringing all your fingers together to the mouth). Babies can easily pick up on signs when they are used repeatedly.

After a while when they get the hang of it, they will automatically demonstrate their needs through signs. This will also decrease any frustration you may have in caring for your baby. As he becomes more and more expressive, it’ll be easier for you to understand what he wants and work accordingly. 

2. You’ll develop a closer bond 

You can use sign language to express your own feelings as well. For instance, when you want to show your love, you can hug yourself while telling him “I love you.” 

When you want him to know you want a kiss from him, you can show him a pout. Similarly, if you want him to hold your hand, you can take your hand close to his body and let him grab it. These are subtle ways of expressing your feelings and love for your baby.

Sure enough, they work wonders to develop a closer bond. Perhaps you are already doing them unknowingly. 

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3. You improve communication 

Communicating with your baby through signing can actually help them develop better vocabulary in the future. As Garcia points out, signing is all about enhancing the vocabulary and not replacing.

Ideally, it should be used alongside your normal speech so that the baby can identify the signs with their corresponding words. You also have to make sure that your baby is looking at you as you speak and use signs. 

When your baby signs back in response, you begin a two-way interaction. And as you spend more time talking and signing, you help him develop his speech. 

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4. You make him expressive

As mentioned earlier, baby sign language also helps to make the child more expressive. With basic signs mastered, your baby can communicate when he wants to eat, drink, sleep and even play. 

These signs could be subtle. Sometimes they can be loud or even accompanied by a scream. But it’s all part of the learning process. 

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5. Your baby develops spatial reasoning skills

By using gestures your baby can develop spatial reasoning skills. This means he can combine mental imagery with hand movements. Although this takes time to develop, using gestures from quite early on can benefit in this regard.

So for instance, if you gesture a drinking movement and he understands what you are referring to then your baby is on track to develop this skill. 

A study by the University of Aberdeen suggests that kids who are introduced to gestures are better able to solve spatial-problems in the future. 

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How to use baby sign language with your bub? 

Now that you know the benefits of baby sign language, let’s move on to its application. As with any new skill, you have to give your child time to learn this one as well. 

  • The ideal time to begin is when your child turns eight or nine months. At this age he will be more sociable, might even start to babble a little, use facial expressions as well as noises to get your attention. 
  • You can begin by using signs that he can easily relate with. For instance, “eat,” “drink,” and even “more.” Most kids are able to pick up on these three words. Each time you use these words, just add the sign for better understanding. 
  • Always make sure to repeat the signs and emphasize the word. This way your baby will be able to understand that one word. For instance, “Do you want more? Shall I get you more? Okay, let’s get you more.” 
  • The key here is to be patient. Some kids take longer than others to sign, so be persistent but do not force in onto him. Most importantly, give him the time and space he needs to pick up on these signs. 
  • Try to turn your baby sign language into a fun game. Babies relate to things that are fun and play-worthy, and sign language is no different.  

But what kind of signs can you begin with? Let’s take a look at some of the common signs that you might already be using or are in the process of teaching your kid. 

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Baby sign language: Where to begin?

The baby sign language differs in the eyes of different experts. Some suggest using actual sign language as baby sign language. Others suggest using simple, day-to-day signs to express symbolic gestures. 

Any of these approaches can work. But there is no harm in making up your own sign language. In fact, its always fun when you and your baby interact in your own special way. Generally, any action that can mimic the word can be a good candidate for baby sign language. Take the following for instance: 

  • Water: Fake holding a glass and mimicking the action of drinking
  • Eat: Bringing all your fingers together and pointing at your mouth
  • Sleep: Take your hands to your face and close your eyes with your fingers or place your palms together and tilt your head towards one side to sign sleeping 
  • Finished: Showing both sides of your hands 
  • Scared: Placing your hands on your chest 
  • Cold: Making a shivering noise and doing a shivering action
  • Hot: Place your hand onto the object and withdraw quickly 
  • Where: You shrug your shoulders as you stretch out your palms 
  • Book: Placing your hands together with palms up  
  • Milk: Using your hands to show the signs of milking a cow 
  • Change: You can rotate both your fists back and forth to show that it is time to change either diaper or stop playing
  • Help: Taping your chest with both hands or placing one hand over the other 
  • Bath: Use your hands to show you are washing your chest 
  • Play: Make a ‘Y’ sign and swing your hands back and forth 
  • Banana: Using your finger to make the sign of peeling a banana 
  • Share: Pass one hand over the other as if you are dividing something
  • Please: Rub your hands over your chest in a circular movement 
  • Thank you: Touch your lips and then move your hands out to blow a kiss
  • Medicine: Place one finger (of right / left hand) on top of your other palm and circle it around  

Chances are you are already using most of these signs at home. But if you haven’t, you can start when your baby learns to sit on his own and develop his motor skills. This can sometimes take up to one year, so be patient. 

The purpose of baby sign language should never be to replace actual spoken language but to supplement it and make your baby more expressive. 

Sources: American Sign Language, Dr Joseph Garcia, British Sign Language   

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