How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language

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Until your babbling babe can articulate his needs, sign language can help him communicate his feelings.

Imagine a world in which your baby could simply tell you what he wants when he wants it—no questions asked (or at least fewer than you’re used to). Thanks to the development of baby sign language, this scenario is not so far-fetched.

Tots are able to make gestures and use their fine motor skills long before they’re able to initiate coherent verbal language. Baby sign language is a method using hand shapes and motions to allow your baby to communicate before he can speak. Interested? Here’s what you need to know.

Begin with simple words.

Teaching American Sign Language (ASL) can be as easy as 1-2-3! Laura Berg, author of The Baby Signing Bible, recommends starting with simple first words that you frequently use with your baby. “Milk” is a great first sign to teach in the beginning, for example, because the mealtime staple is a big part of a little one’s life. “Whenever you say the word, you should make the sign,” instructs Berg. “Then introduce the breast or bottle to the child” Other basic signs to introduce include foods (banana, apple, cracker), toys and animals (ball, car, dog) and regular activities (bathtime, book, sleep). Berg suggests that teaching the ASL signs for activities will help your babe learn routines and understand what’s coming next.

Start signing earlier.

You can begin teaching baby sign language as soon as you both are ready. Berg says that many parents wait until 6-9 months, but she introduced it at 4 months of age when early communication was becoming more regular.

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It’s important to remember that your baby may not sign back immediately, even when using simple signs, and that’s OK. Young children constantly observe their surroundings and absorb their environment, so your two-way communication is in sight, even if it takes longer than expected. Consistency is critical to creating the interaction, says Berg. “The key is not to give up. I’ve never seen a baby not sign whose parents are consistent and didn’t give up too early.”

Tip: It’s never too late to start signing! Introducing baby sign language basics to an older tot is still beneficial, especially during speech development. Your tot may not have the language skills to pronounce certain words clearly, leading to frustration. Signing can help remedy these situations and make communication easier (with hopefully fewer tantrums).

Don’t stress over language development.

Many parents and caregivers are concerned that learning baby sign language will delay the development of verbal skills and milestones, but Berg quickly dispels this fear: “Signing doesn’t delay speech; babies will talk when they want to talk or are ready to talk.” Additionally, she explains, “There is a difference between speech and language learning, so by signing to my children, I was giving them [some sort of] language to use until their words came in.”

By Lauren Brockman Andre

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