Understanding the benefits of Baby Sign Language
By Jessica Maye
You’ve heard about “baby sign” but may not know what all the fuss is about. Why use sign language when your baby passed her hearing screening? And if you’re short on time and sleep and patience, why sink your energy into something non-essential? The truth is that there probably won’t be any long-term benefits to using sign with your child, unless they are hearing impaired or have some other difficulty using spoken language. But for any child who is not talking fluently yet, using baby sign can help them communicate earlier and better. And parents appreciate being able to understand those early communication attempts and avoid a few of their child’s frustration meltdowns. Here are three reasons baby sign can help speed up communication with your child:
- Signing highlights key words. Using baby sign is different from using a real sign language. Real sign languages are as complicated as spoken language. But using “baby sign” just means using a few hand signs (borrowed from a real sign language like American Sign Language (ASL)) at the same time that you say the words out loud. For example, you might say “Do you want MORE?” while using the hand sign for “more”. This helps your baby pay attention to the particular words (like “more”) that are most useful for them to learn first.
- Kids can sign before they can talk. Speaking requires precise timing and control of many small muscles in your mouth and throat. The motor control required to pronounce a word clearly takes a long time to develop. Your child may know lots of words but not be able to say them yet. Signing relies on larger muscles that require less finely tuned coordination. So children are physically able to make a sign you can recognize before they are old enough to speak clearly.
It’s easier to guess what they mean. Kids’ first attempts at words usually don’t sound much like the adult word. They may say “da” to mean dad, dog, done, or even something seemingly random like car. With baby sign you only teach your child a handful of signs, so guessing what they’re trying to say is much easier. For example, to sign “more” you tap the fingers of your two hands together. If your child bangs their fists together and then looks to see if you understand, you can narrow it down to the signs you know with two hands coming together, like more and shoes. And kids will often sign and say the word simultaneously. So if he says “muh” and bangs his fists it’s pretty clear he means “more”.
Using baby sign does require an investment of time and energy up front. You have to learn some signs, and you have to use them repeatedly. Your baby may not seem like they’re paying attention (trust me, they are!), and you might feel foolish making hand signs to them over and over. But even a small investment can pay off. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you consider whether or not to use baby sign.
- A few signs is enough. Because baby sign is a tool for early communication, not a full language, you don’t need to spend much time learning to sign. Pick just a few signs that will be helpful in communicating with your child, such as “more”, “food/eat”, and “milk”. Once you’re comfortable with those you can add more or wait until your child starts signing back to you.
- You don’t have to do the signs “right”. Baby signs are modeled after real signs from ASL. But since the goal is just to help you talk with your baby it really doesn’t matter if you make the signs correctly or not. Just do each sign the same way every time so your child can learn what it means and you can understand what your child means.
- There are videos! There are many ways to learn baby sign – community classes, books, online lessons. One method I used with my own children was a baby sign DVD that was made for babies to watch. My kids loved listening to the songs and watching grownups and kids making the signs, while I loved the 10 minutes or so to relax! Keep in mind that the American Association of Pediatricians recommends NO screen time for children under two years. But if you do decide to let your child watch a few minutes of TV periodically, that’s another easy way to expose your child to signs. If you choose to do this, be sure to use the same signs yourself when interacting with your child. That way they learn that signs are useful in real life, not just something fun to watch on TV.
Your choice to use baby sign or not will not have any long-term effects on your child’s language. Baby sign may help you understand your child earlier and better while they are first learning to talk, but once they can speak clearly, most kids will stop signing. During those exasperating months of early toddlerhood, though, many parents find that the ability to communicate a little better with their child is well worth the investment of time and energy.