When all three of my kids were infants, my husband and I introduced sign language to them. It was always so much fun watching their pudgy hands form their first signs with big grins on their faces. I found that communicating in sign language helped cut down on tantrums and facilitated my kids’ language development. With simple signs, they were able to tell me when they were hungry, tired, or needed a diaper change.
Infants have the ability to communicate manually long before they biologically have the ability to speak. You can introduce sign language at any time. Some babies begin to mimic signs as young as six months old, with the average infant picking up signs by eight months. Children will naturally switch over to speech once they are developmentally able to do so.
Make a list of common words that you use with your infant/toddler throughout the day. A great site to look up signs for words is Lifeprint. Start by teaching yourself some basic signs such as “more,” “eat,” and “play.” You can also learn along with your baby by watching videos. Baby Einstein, My First Signs and Signing Time have colorful, attractive videos which are appropriate for infants and toddlers.
The most common sign to teach is “more.” When my kids started solid foods, I used this sign often. I would pause after feeding a spoonful and sign, “more” with a questioning look on my face. My infants quickly figured out if they rewarded Mommy with a sign, she would smile and feed them more good stuff. Warning: this may not work with pureed peas as well as it does with applesauce or sweet potatoes. Wrap up the feeding session by teaching “all done” or “full.”
Just as babies first words often contain funny pronunciations, babies first signs are often modified as well. For example, when my kids first learned to tell me they were hungry, they signed the “hungry” sign with an open, flat palm going down on their chest instead of signing it properly like this: The sign for “hungry.” The trick is to recognize the modified signs and reward your baby for communicating, then continue to communicate with the proper sign. As your baby’s coordination develops, the signs will become more refined and accurate.
From an early age, my kids were able to identify and communicate colors before they were able to talk. I discovered the easy way to teach colors at bath time when I presented my oldest son with a choice between red and blue popsicles as a special treat. He was around ten months old and he confidently let me know that he wanted the cherry-flavored sugar stick by signing “red” back to me. At first, I thought it was a fluke, but he continued to point to red objects and toys after that. Presenting two signs at once and asking your toddler to chose between the two choices is a great way to encourage your child to sign back and build up their language.
Signing songs was another way for us to bond and build language at the same time. I especially loved signing Jim Gill’s “I Took a Bath in a Washing Machine” song–it was easy for my kids to sign along.
One of the wonderful advantages of sign language is that you can use it anywhere to communicate. When my kids were at the park, I would ask them if they had to use the bathroom and they could communicate their needs back to me. This was great during the potty-training stage!
To this day, my ultimate favorite sign is the American Sign Language sign for “I love you.” It is made with the thumb, forefinger, and pinky finger extended, and the two middle fingers folded down. Even at a distance, this distinctive sign sends waves of love to whoever receives it.