Baby Sign Language: It Worked For Us!

baby sign language
Time to eat, Mom!
When you're a first-time mom, you come across a lot of must-tries that turn out to be disasters, a load of pishposh, or simply just a waste of time. Baby sign language is not one of those. Baby sign language, you say? Sounds like voodoo. But, for us, it worked! We are so glad we read about it, tried it, and kept at it! I have a lot of fond memories of Ella signing (I shared one in a previous post) and sometimes, when she nurses, she'll still sign "I love you" and we'll touch hands (sort of an "I love you"-five), our little ritual and secret language. I look forward to the memories I'll make with Jacob. He'll be six months old next week and we'll begin signing with him soon (although I've already begun signing, "I love you," out of habit. I wonder what his first word will be. 

(Click on for 5 reasons we love Baby Sign Language and 5 quick tips for getting started, after the jump)

5 Reasons We Love Baby Sign Language and 5 Tips for Getting Started:

(Click the bold words to watch videos of the signs as mentioned.)

1) It is empowering.
baby sign language
Ella, 1 year old, asks for milk
Sign language is exactly what its name implies: it's a language, just like body language, or verbal language. Babies are fully formed human beings with the need to express themselves and communicate with their caregivers in order to survive. One way they do that is by crying, especially if their caregiver doesn't understand the other body language cues that they are trying to use to get fed, get carried, or get cleaned. If babies are taught by experience that they crying is the only way they can get what they want, they will cry to get what they want. Signing gives babies and parents a common language.

Ella learned that she is able to express herself and that she is being heard. It was especially helpful during mealtimes when she wanted to more food, or wanted a specific food, instead of what we were giving her. Teaching her how to sign "yes" and "no" helped her to stop shouting the word "no" before she became a full-fledged toddler and no became part of her nature. As she started to speak, sign language helped us clarify what she meant if she was trying to say a word that she couldn't quite pronounce. "Did you mean 'ba, ball, baby, or banana?' Oh, you signed 'banana.' You must be hungry."
Infants are born with a hunger for your contact and communication. They are continuously searching for ways to express themselves....They want to be part of that communication much earlier than they are able to tell you.
jorge garcia, sign with your baby
2) It primed her for future language learning.
I don't think it's farfetched to say that learning sign language instilled a love for words in our daughter. Now, at 3, she loves learning the meanings of new words, in different languages (English, Filipino, and Korean) and will ask what a word means when she hears one she doesn't understand. It's a habit learned from toddlerhood when she would ask how to sign certain words.

E's a very verbal preschooler, so I rarely sign with her anymore, but she sometimes gets my phone to watch the videos in the app and learns new words on her own, which she'll then teach me! For her, it's still fun!

3) It can be a shared language in a bilingual household.
I know some parents don't like their kids' caregivers to speak to them in Filipino when they're trying to raise an English-speaking kid (which I don't agree with, but let's not get into that). With sign language, your caregiving partners and you can have a common language with which to speak to your baby. It helps actually helps to teach Yaya and other caregivers the signs to use, so they can use the same sign when your baby is in their care. 

5) It was easy to start and practically free.
The only investment cost is a bit of self-consciousness in the early months when you look like a crazy person making funny gestures at a pre-verbal infant. We were asked a few times if E was deaf and we got our share of looks (but, as a breastfeeding and babywearing mom, I'm used to getting looks and comments). Keep your eyes on your child's eyes and you'll soon stop noticing the people around you.

Because we couldn't find a class or a community at the time, I picked up a few books about it, namely The Baby Signing Bible: Baby Sign Language Made EasyBaby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby before Your Baby Can Talk, and Sign with Your Baby. The books mainly tell you how and why baby sign language works, as well as give you a dictionary and visual reference guide of signs you can teach your baby. Interesting stuff, if you have the time to read them (and with just one baby and time off from work, I had a lot of time). The books helped me explain why I was doing it when people asked, but when I tell my friends about it, I recommend just getting an app with a sign language dictionary and reading up on it online. Or reading my tips below.

Pressed for time or just eager to get started? Allow me to summarize:

1) Start simply.
You're probably new to sign language, just like your baby, so start slowly, together. Choose a few relevant signs that you can do consistently. Consistency is the key. You are building associations in the brain. The more consistently you link the word to the sign or finger action, the quicker your baby will understand that, if I do this with my hands, this other thing happens. "Eat" is a good word, at six months, as your baby begins eating solid food. Sign the word "eat" before you put your baby's bowl in front of her. Soon, she will realize that, if I want the bowl of food, I can put my hands to my mouth like Mommy or Daddy does.

2) Sign in context.
Help your child build a vocabulary by associating signs with words in the proper context. Your daily life will provide enough opportunities for you to sign and teach new words. At mealtimes, sign "let's eat"; food names, like "rice" or "banana"; and, when baby seems to done, "finished" or "all done." As you nurse, sign "milk". When you greet him, sign "mama." Before bedtime, sign "sleep." Walk around the house and you'll find more words to sign. Don't know a word? It's a Google search away!

3) Adapt to your child.
Yes, Ma'am!
Remember, your baby is just learning how to get his hands to do what his brain tells it to do (ever watch a baby try to put his hand in his mouth—and miss?), so, understandably, finger signing is a challenge. As he copies your actions and learns each signs, he won't always do them perfectly. That's perfectly okay. You don't get extra points for doing the signs perfectly. Especially when you're nine months old. Think of it like speaking with a different accent—he means the same word, but he's pronouncing it slightly differently from you. Ella's sign for "more" looked more like a dance move, but we understood her, and she was able to communicate what she wanted, and that's what mattered.

4) Make it fun.
Signing isn't just for communicating. We don't just speak in order to get what we want. We sing, joke, and express ourselves for other reasons, too. As you and your baby get more comfortable with signs and your baby understands that the actions mean something, you can read books together that teach signs along with the story (We found a few at Books for Less and Fully Booked), sign the words of a favorite song, or just let your baby play with your hands. One of my early favorite signing activities for both Ella and Jacob was to sing the alphabet song and sign the letters. As infants, they were fascinated by the movement of my fingers and the shapes my hands made; it would actually calm them down and keep them busy. You can laugh about funny signs ("poop" is hilarious to kids), or make up games to build their vocabulary. "Can you make the animal sound of the animal I'm signing?" (The Baby Signing Bible and Baby Signs have chapters on songs, activities, and games to play). Learning through play is the best way!

5) Keep at it.
You can start signing with your baby as soon as you like, but the books say they don't usually start signing back until they're around nine months or older. In other words, be patient and keep at it, even if they don't seem to understand you. One day they will and you will be amazed.
One Big Don't: Don't sit your baby in front of a baby sign language dvd and expect her to learn while watching. If you want to use a DVD, use it to help you learn (watching the cute kids signing to motivate you) then teach the signs to your child. Studies show that kids learn better through interactions with loving and trusted caregivers. That's you!

Ready to learn? I need a refresher course and Not an Exact Science has a YouTube playlist of 104 signs that's really helpful:

Will you be trying baby sign language with your little one or have you tried it with your kids? I'd love to hear about your experience!