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Baby Sign Language 101

Sep28

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smackdown_signing.jpgDear Amalah,
Love you, love all that you write! Your boys are adorable and it’s so much fun to read what they’ve been up to. I read in one of your recent Amalah posts that Ezra is doing some signing. My daughter is almost nine months old, she can wave bye bye and do pattycake, and so I think she’s ready for some signs. I’ve read about teaching signs, but I still feel like I have no clue what I’m doing. I would love to hear from you your “process” for teaching Noah and Ezra signs. I think hearing actual examples from an actual parent would be a lot more helpful.
Thanks,
Cathy

My…”process.”
Haaaaaaaa! Ha ha! See, I have to come clean and admit that I have no process, that I don’t really know what I’m doing either.
For Noah, I had ATTITUDE about baby sign language. Major, obnoxious, uppity attitude. I thought it was one of THOSE THINGS for THOSE MOTHERS. You know, the flash card mothers. The gymnastics-on-Mondays, Mandarin-Chinese-on-Tuesdays, advanced-outer-space-physics-on-Wednesdays…you know. The mothers who push push push and brag brag brag. And then Noah didn’t talk, wouldn’t gesture…and our pediatrician told me to teach him some sign language to make life a little more bearable while we readied ourselves for speech therapy.
So, for anyone looking to teach their toddler some sign language, I highly, HIGHLY recommend starting off with some Signing Time DVDs. (Spring for Series One if you really plan to stick with it, or are dealing with a speech delay, or have a money tree in your backyard; otherwise the first three volumes will give you a ton of useful everyday signs.) Noah had zero interest in mimicking us, but the instant I popped in one of these simple, colorful, cheerful DVDs and he saw children of all ages and abilities signing, with the concepts clearly illustrated with lots of bonus silliness, he picked up his first sign within 24 hours. He asked for milk, I immediately gave him milk…and it was like a light bulb finally went off and a connection was made. Communicating = getting what you want, when you want. TA-DAAAAAA.
And contrary to all the fretting naysayers (But why would he talk if he knows how to sign?), Noah’s speech grew right along with his signing vocabulary. Once he learned a sign, he was much more likely to attempt saying the word to accompany the hand motion. His speech therapist was astounded at how quickly he picked up signs and then the corresponding word.
So. Yeah. So much love here for the Signing Time series. Changed our LIVES, no exaggeration. I still get all verklempt just thinking about it.
Which means I spent the next couple years feverishly and evangelically pressing our DVDs on friends and family…and now don’t actually have anything appropriate left for Ezra (i.e. those first three volumes, or the baby versions). I planned to replace our Baby Signing Time DVDs — they’re similar to to “regular” series, only feature younger children and babies doing the signs, at a slower pace. (Noah was too old for them — he wanted to see the Big Kids.) But so many of my grand master plans, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
Instead, I just sign for Ezra. A lot. He’s a natural mimic (Noah was not), so half-assing my own signing curriculum was a little easier. (So…yeah. If your baby doesn’t mimic or use gestures, visual aids like the DVDs or books would probably be a worthwhile investment.) Otherwise, let’s all half-ass it together!
I chose two signs to start with: Milk and More. Check out ASLpro.com and scroll down halfway to find their “ASL for Babies Dictionary,” which features quick demonstrations of the most useful signs. Start with one or two, whatever you think your baby will likely get. I personally think the food and drink ones are the best place to start, since they are actual, concrete demands that you can easily and quickly fulfill, lightbulb-moment style. Sign BEFORE you give your baby her milk or more food — once she has it she likely won’t be paying much attention to you.
Once Ezra was about eight months old (i.e. ONCE THE CRAZY SCREAMING STARTED), I would sign milk from the time I got the bottle from the cabinet until I gave it to him (or when we were nursing, from the time I sat down and opened my shirt and until he latched on). Milk. Milk. Milk. Make sure you say the word out loud while you sign. After awhile, you can start pausing. Waiting. Giving your baby time to make her own request. While signing, I say, “Do you want some MORE?” And then I put the food down on the table and wait for a response. The first time Ezra made the sign, I am sure it was more of a mimicry thing than him actually understanding what I was asking. But it doesn’t matter — they mimic the sign (or some version of it), you repeat the word and sign again and clap and praise and IMMEDIATELY give them the milk or more Cheerios or whatever it is. Don’t pause and withhold until the point of tears, obviously…but you absolutely must give them the CHANCE to ask before swooping in with the Mindreader Mommy of Instant Gratification act.
The first sign or two will take the longest, and then (in my experience, with both of the boys) they start really getting the idea and are willing to mimic more hand motions, experimenting with them, seeing what happens after they do them. Now I sign…well, a lot. Eat, water, hot, ball, Mama, Dada, brother, etc. I do have the luxury of already knowing a lot of signs from our DVDs. (I swear, I learned signs quicker and easier from Signing Time than from HOURS spent on ASL websites trying to teach myself. I can still sign almost the entire Silly Pizza song!)
Basically: if your baby is willing to mimic you (waving, clapping, etc.) and seems to sort-of understand cause and effect, they are likely ready to learn some signs. They won’t be elegant, of course — Ezra’s “more” is basically a more flappy version of clapping, and his “all done” is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. While Noah (who was closer to 2 years old when we finally started) picked up signs literally overnight, it takes a LOT more patience with a younger baby. You may feel like a moron for a few months, miming a weird milking-cow-udder sign over and over again while your baby stares at you blankly. But with patience, persistence (and consistency — get your partner on board, for sure), you may walk into your baby’s room one morning to hear him wailing from his crib…and making that cow-udder sign back, clear as day. Like, holy crap, who let in this PERSON?
Photo by Monkieyes
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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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19 Responses to “Baby Sign Language 101”

  1. Katie Sep 28 at 11:20 am Reply Reply

    We’re a Signing Time family, too. While my daughter is an emotional, spirited girl, we had way fewer tantrums than many of my friends with kids of similar ages, and I won’t hesitate for a second to say that it was almost 100% due to signing. And she spoke very much on “schedule” and continued/continues to watch Signing Time and do signs at age 4 just because it’s fun! It does take reinforcement from you, though, so you’ll definitely have some of those “moron milking cow sign” moments Amy mentions. (Also, btw, Signing Time might be on PBS near you and your local library probably has at least a couple of the DVDs if you wanna try before you buy them.)

  2. Cobblestone Sep 28 at 11:28 am Reply Reply

    To add my own experience with signing because I came at it backwards. I wanted to do it, I practiced and thought about and then …. well time passed. BUT – they did some signs at daycare. Husband noticed something that looked a lot like EAT and … low and behold he wanted to eat. Huh. Ok. Then this wave thing that looked like ALL DONE and then the next bite of food was flying because, “Woman! I just told you I was DONE!”
    So. If the babe does daycare, you might want to ask if they are signing because babe will bring it home.

  3. Courtney Sep 28 at 11:28 am Reply Reply

    Very timely post for me. Thank you so much!

  4. Laurie Sep 28 at 12:33 pm Reply Reply

    I had the same experience as Cobblestone. I moved baby from one day care to another at nineteen months and within a week he was signing “more”, “please” and “thank you”. He’s now two years old and has a huge verbal vocabulary but he still uses the “please” sign sometimes (especially if his mouth is full).

  5. Michelle Sep 28 at 12:47 pm Reply Reply

    I actually took a child signing class with my now 3 yr old when he was about 8 months old. It was the best thing ever. Personally I would recommend looking into a class because the instructor made sure to show parents what the signs might look like that the baby made back because obviously they don’t have the coordination of an adult so their signs won’t be “perfect”. Plus it was a lot of fun. I think there were 6-8 other babies/moms in the class so it was good for socializing too. Our class was taught by a Signing Smart instructor. You can check out the website at signingsmart.com to see if there is a class/instructor near you. Our local library and rec center also offers baby sign classes. I think we paid about $160 for 10 weeks and got 2 dvds and a ASL dictionary for common kid words.
    Best money ever spent! In fact, I can’t wait to take a class with my newborn son.
    My little guy was personally never all that great at signing. I think he was pretty consistent with milk, more, all done and ball. But he was pretty verbal (and OMG still is) so I didn’t really follow up with it much after he was 15 months or so because he could usually tell me what he wanted. Still I think the signing class was really beneficial.

  6. Muirnait Sep 28 at 1:03 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve always wanted to do this with my hypothetical – largely because I would like to know more signs myself. (I still remember cookie, though :P)

  7. Kat Sep 28 at 1:20 pm Reply Reply

    I still sign “please” and “thank you” across the room to my 10-year old when he needs some prompting. He always knows what I am asking him to do without embarassing him..

  8. chiquita Sep 28 at 2:28 pm Reply Reply

    We also took cues from daycare, and followed their lead. Our first sign was “more” and I almost cried the first time she signed more (b/c she wanted my breakfast.) Another cool moment was when she signed more for something she wanted us to repeat that was non-food related. (build block tower again = more) Wow, conceptual thinking.

  9. Della Sep 28 at 2:57 pm Reply Reply

    Oooh oooh ooh me me me!! Pick me!! *waves raised hand*
    In short, our “process” was similar to Amy’s. We picked some signs that we figured the kid would want to communicate first – milk, daddy, more – and just signed the heck out of those words. Starting before he ever would be able to do them himself – about 4 months, I think.
    But here’s where it really took off [and this is also part of a post I'm writing for my blog, because I love this CD set so much]:
    I was at Barnes & Noble. I was looking through the clearance stuff. I had been thinking about doing the signing thing, and here for ten bucks was this CD, Book, Flash Card combo called Sign, Sing & Play: Songs for Little Hands, by Monta Z. Briant and Susan Z. Sounded cute, was on sale…so I bought it.
    That CD is AWESOME. First of all, most of the songs are awesome cute songs that your kid will love, and you will get stuck in your head, in the good way, and every time someone says Milk, you’ll start singing. Every time someone says “baby needs a diaper change”, you’ll start singing. Every time someone says “In the morning” or “it’s time for you to eat”, you’ll start singing. At least, I do. I love those songs, and they entertain the tiny ones and also sneakily introduce a ton of words and ideas the kid needs to know. AAAAAAANNNNNNND all of the songs are sing-and-sign-along, so they include a little book with all the ASL signs needed to sign along.
    We didn’t figure our 6 month old would really appreciate the flash cards, and we were right – he wouldn’t even look at them. BUT once he picked up his first few signs (milk, more) we would pick a few words we wanted to work on, stick the flash cards for those words onto the fridge to remind us, and practice them. We could practice “in the real world” or also while singing along to the songs. Once he learned them, we would swap out the flash cards (for the parents’ benefit) to remind us of what new signs to work on.
    And I can support both sides of the “I sign, why bother talking” argument. My son’s three first spoken words, at about 12 months, were more, milk, and dada – the same three words he already signed.
    However, some words he would just rather sign. For instance, at 19 months, we have to fight and fight if we want him to speak the word Please instead of signing it; he has never yet spoken the words Help or Change (my diaper) or Music, but he will sign those; he has also regressed and will sign milk but not say it.
    Even so, he has a really great vocabulary, so we’re not concerned about the words he doesn’t say; we figure he’ll get around to them eventually.
    (Also, I found that Songs for Little Hands 2 advance copies are available for sale online. I can tell you we love the second CD just as much as the first, although the songs are a lot different – I would say more geared toward a toddler than a baby (works perfect for me!))
    This comment is long enough, so if you want more details, you can click on my name above the comment here and it’ll take you to my (more detailed) review.

  10. Robert, SLP Sep 28 at 2:59 pm Reply Reply

    Great post! Baby signs are definitely beneficial for language development, and this is a nice, realistic explanation of how you can implement signs at home.
    Expect a lot of imprecise approximations in the early days (like the “flappy clapping” for ‘more’), just as you expect to hear a lot of misarticulations in early oral speech. Your child’s fine motor development is in the early stages, and this affects both the tongue and the fingers.

  11. Katie Sep 28 at 4:03 pm Reply Reply

    I signed half assed with mine too. The baby sitter started it. It was awesome to know when he wanted more or milk. And yes, it took forever for the first one or two signs. Totally worth it.

  12. Robin Sep 28 at 5:07 pm Reply Reply

    I live in the same county as Amalah so we have the same library system. I took all the Signing Time DVDs out of the library and used them for a few weeks before committing to buying them. My daughter LOVED them too. But I didn’t know she would and didn’t want to spend $100 before I knew that they would get some use.
    Kid resource-wise, we live in a pretty nice place here. I don’t know if all counties have the same materials. But you might want to look into it first before laying out the money.

  13. Paige Sep 29 at 8:19 am Reply Reply

    Delurking to let those who are local know that Rachel Coleman, the host of Signing Time, will be doing a free session for parents on Tuesday, October 6th at 7pm at St. Columba’s Nursery School
    4201 Albemarle Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20016

  14. rkmama Sep 29 at 2:49 pm Reply Reply

    I started signing with my son when he was somewhere between 8 and 9 months on the recommendation of our pediatrician. My son was colicky and screamy and, well, kind of a nightmare so she thought trying a different approach to communicating with the little guy would help ease the crying. I checked out Baby Signs and the Signing Time DVDs from our library (because WOW they are expensive!) so my husband, 3 year old and I could learn a few signs to use (ad nauseum) around the boy. We had heard it took a while for the first signs to stick but by 12 months he was still looking at us like we were idiots when we signed “milk” “more” “eat” and “all done”, which were the chosen few we used every day, every chance we could. And he sometimes would wave his hands around and I’d say “Look he’s saying something!” but no, he was just waving his hands around. I’ve come to notice his hand dexterity is not great which may have contributed to this.
    But! He LOVED the DVDs which he started to pay attention to somewhere between 12-13 months. And even though my extremely verbal daughter didn’t need the signs per say she absolutely adored these DVDs and picked up a ton of signs.
    Keaton never did sign much but his vocab exploded at around 15 months and many of the words he learned to say were a direct result of these DVDs.
    Did they work for us like we wanted them to? No, not really- but I still found them to be valuable as a tool to boost communication with both of my kids.
    Good luck!

  15. Cristin Sep 29 at 6:01 pm Reply Reply

    Ha! I laugh because I work in a daycare (ages 12-18 months)and we hear the same thing from parents, “What does this (milking a cow move) MEAN?”
    It’s like a reflex when offering milk or food or “more.” It really becomes natural after a few weeks.
    And in a daycare setting, the kids pick up on it so fast b/c they are little copy cats anyway.
    We have a TV/DVD set up in my school and can actually watch it with the kids. I go home singing “These are the pets I love, these are the pets I LOOOVE!”

  16. Linda Easton Sep 30 at 12:15 pm Reply Reply

    @Cathy:
    The newest application for signing is to potty training. Preverbal babies CAN potty train – and it’s a lot easier if they can tell you when they need to go by using the signs for “potty.”
    For a quick introductory video, visit http://www.PottyTrainWithBabySigns.com

  17. Kim Sep 30 at 12:23 pm Reply Reply

    I loved signing with my daughter. I’m extremely verbal myself, so being able to communicate was fantastic. I had a book, watched Signing Time (on PBS, but it’s off the air now,) and looked up signs online (took me forever to find one for “avocado,” one of our food staples.) And then I signed like crazy,just the few at first, then for almost everything. I’d always been interested in ASL, so it was fun for me.
    As for the “why talk if you can sign” argument – seriously? Effective communication is its own reward. Babies figure that out pretty early. BTW, I’m an elementary teacher, and I am strongly anti-flashcard for my almost 3yo. We spend a lot of time reading and in language play (rhymes, songs, etc.) but I am not pushing letters and numbers for their own sakes. All of that will come in its own time. For me, signing was a way to start the language play early (and to save me from the inevitable eh-eh-eh all day long. Shudder.) Can’t wait to get started with baby #2!

  18. Cheri Sep 30 at 10:27 pm Reply Reply

    Thanks so much for mentioning Signing Time videos- we got them from the library for my toddler- he was evaluated in June, on wait list for speech therapy until August. Basically we just started with the first video, and my 4 1/2 yr old and I signed to my son, who was 18 months. He had about 20 signs by the time we got the speech therapy started- It’s a great transition into speech. He is diagnosed with an expressive language disorder ( shh so the ins. will pay.) He started talking right after speech therapy started- but now he (and his sister and I )still use some signs. It’s useful now to figure out what he’s saying sometimes. It was such a huge relief to have Something we could do while waiting. My daughter picked it up CRAZY fast- I’d look at her and say ok what was that one? I don’t remember that one! He’s 22 months and says some words and uses some signs, get the videos from the library- my library can order stuff from university libraries and from other counties in Ohio- check if your library doesn’t have them they could possibly order them for you.

  19. CathyHW Oct 02 at 9:31 am Reply Reply

    Thanks, Amalah, for answering my question, your advice is, as always, very helpful. The comments have all been helpful too. @Paige, I am in DC and hope to attend the session on Tuesday!

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