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Baby Sign Language 101

By Amalah

Dear 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 (your second son) is doing some baby 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 (your first) and Ezra signs. I think hearing actual examples from an actual parent would be a lot more helpful.

Thanks,

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 shows (also available at our affiliate, Amazon). (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 shows — 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

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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Katie
Guest
Katie

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… Read more »

Cobblestone
Guest
Cobblestone

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… Read more »

Courtney
Guest
Courtney

Very timely post for me. Thank you so much!

Laurie
Guest
Laurie

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).

Michelle
Guest
Michelle

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… Read more »

Muirnait
Guest

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)

Kat
Guest
Kat

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..

chiquita
Guest
chiquita

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.

Della
Guest

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… Read more »

Robert, SLP
Guest

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.

Katie
Guest
Katie

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.

Robin
Guest
Robin

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.

Paige
Guest
Paige

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

rkmama
Guest

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… Read more »

Cristin
Guest
Cristin

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!”

Linda Easton
Guest

@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

Kim
Guest
Kim

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.… Read more »

Cheri
Guest
Cheri

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… Read more »

CathyHW
Guest
CathyHW

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!