What if your baby could tell you they were hungry before succumbing to a full-blown tantrum? It’s possible, but not from some eerie advancement in technology. Instead, we’re talking about how to teach your baby sign language, a method of teaching simple gestures that babies can use to communicate with you. Since a baby’s ability to comprehend spoken words comes much before the ability to speak, using baby sign language could bridge the gap between your child’s wants and words!
While your baby will develop just fine without learning any sign language, it might be of interest if you aim to reduce frustrations and ease communication for your baby. With a growing number of mothers adopting the practice, there are ample resources available online. This makes it quick and simple to learn new words. Just remember, you don’t have to teach your baby the entire alphabet for them to be successful. Just starting with a few words, like the ones we will mention below, will be enough for you to see noticeable changes. The key is persistence and consistency, and eventually, any baby can benefit!
When to start teaching your baby sign language
There is no perfect time to start teaching your little one non-verbal signs. All children will take a different amount of time to pick up and then start using signs, regardless of when you begin. Just as all babies reach milestones (like standing and crawling) at different times, they will also adopt the ability to sign at different times. Don’t forget to be easy on yourself and your child as you learn together.
The very youngest a baby might be able to sign is around five months old. Regardless, a popular sweet spot for teaching your baby is between 6-8 months with hopes of them being able to sign anytime from 8-12+ months. Don’t worry if you feel like it’s too late, even upset toddlers can find it useful to communicate through certain signs!
How to teach your baby sign language
Once you’ve committed to beginning baby sign language, the first step is as simple as saying the word and making the gesture simultaneously. For example, whenever you say or give your baby milk, you make the gesture for milk (open and closed fist like milking a cow). Don’t expect them to catch on right away; repetition and consistency are key. Eventually, a whole new world of communication will open up for you!
While you should choose helpful and frequently-used words, it’s important to mix in some that are just for fun. Babies want to communicate about the things they are engaged with, so if you teach them signs for things like ‘dog’ and ‘toy,’ they will be more motivated to begin using them.
Are there drawbacks to teaching baby sign language?
Besides the extra effort it takes to learn and then consistently model signs for your baby, research says there are no drawbacks for teaching your baby sign language. In fact, some studies show that babies who sign before speaking have a wider vocabulary by age two.
Most babies will exclusively sign until they are able to speak. At that point, your baby might do a combination of signs and words or just drop signing altogether. The point of teaching and using baby sign language is to communicate with your child effectively, so however they decide it works for them is just fine!
One of the easier signs to start with is ‘milk.’ Since parents are given ample opportunities each day to expose the child to the object of milk (or formula), pairing the sign with the object is pretty simple. Each and every time you show or bring your child some milk, repeat the motion of opening and closing your fist as you are milking a cow. Once they get the hang of this, you can move on to other foods to expand the communication.
Another good one to start with would be identifying words for the parents in your family. To sign ‘mommy,’ extend and spread your fingers apart in front of your face. With your pinkie facing forward, tap your thumb on your chin. The hand sign for ‘mom’ is the same as the hand sign for ‘dad’ but is signed lower on the face. For ‘dad,’ make the same gesture with your thumb but while tapping your forehead.
Another easy and motivating symbol to get the ball rolling for your child is to choose one of your pets. Whether you have a dog, cat, fish, or bird, make the gesture whenever you’re presented with the opportunity. When you notice the same animal outside the house, make sure to pair the gesture then too!
To sign for ‘dog,’ extend your arm and pat your side like you are calling for a dog to come toward you. For ‘cat,’ pinch your thumb and index finger together by the side of your cheek, then move your fingers outward. This should look like you are teasing or smoothing out your whiskers.
‘More’ is helpful for knowing when your baby could actually tolerate more or when they’ve had enough. Eventually, this sign could also be used in other circumstances like ‘more drink’ or ‘more book time.’ To sign ‘more,’ pinch your thumbs and fingers together on both hands, creating two O shapes, then tap your fingertips together a few times.
‘Happy’ might not be a useful sign for you as you can be pretty certain when your child is already happy, but it is a motivating sign for babies. When babies are excited and joyful they want to share that with those around them. Being able to communicate that they are happy will not only feel good for them (and you!), but it’s also good practice for including more difficult signs into their vocabulary. From here, other useful words to teach are ‘sleep,’ ‘change,’ and ‘done.’
There is no one size fits all for teaching sign language to your little one. As you go, you’ll learn what works for you and what you find most useful. Eventually, you should find a reduction in tantrums and a new window of communication with your baby. As long as you are committed to sticking with it, the options for new vocabulary are endless!