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Farmers Almanac
The 2014 Farmers Almanac
Farmers' Almanac

Baby Signs!

Baby Signs!

If you spend valuable time trying to discern and decode what your toddler really wants, and explosive scenes in cars, at mealtime, or in supermarket aisles are all too common for you and your two-year-old, there just may be a cure. Teaching babies to communicate through sign language, sometimes even before they can walk, may not be a panacea for every single tirade later on, but experts say it goes a long way toward easing your child’s frustration and helping them get ahead later on in the classroom.

In the aptly-named “foreign country” analogy, the so-called terrible twos are actually a time in a child’s development when awareness evolves, though the desire to communicate about such is undermined by the lack of skills to do so. Consider being hungry or needing a restroom for yourself in another part of the world, or experiencing thirst, fear or cold, and not being able to speak the language. There would be no way to articulate your needs and have them satisfied. The same goes for babies and very young children as awareness of their needs and surroundings increases.

When babies are taught baby sign language, which differs from the more structured (and complicated) American Sign Language (ASL), statistics reveal benefits that include earlier development of actual language skills, as demonstrating a sign is accompanied by the parent or caregiver also saying the word. A higher IQ, head start in school, and yes, mitigating, or in some cases altogether avoiding, the terrible twos are also a byproduct of teaching babies to sign. With the fundamentals of signing conveyed to babies at a few months of age, the capacity to ask for milk, a favorite stuffed animal or book, signal that a soiled diaper needs changing (an uncomfortable state for many children that can typically cause great frustration), or simply indicate “I want more” may prevent the explosive behavior that ensues from not being able to express their needs.

Massachusetts mom Zoe McInerny, who has a master’s degree in education, taught her twins Connor and Xander to sign began when they were only a few months old. Starting with an object they especially liked, which, experts say, is the key to effectively encouraging babies to sign, McInerny would point to the ceiling light in the hall each night on their way to bed. Closing and opening her fist, the sign for light, and saying the word, the babies soon began to make the sign themselves, though she was never sure they made the connection.

She got her answer when, at eight months, Xander saw a floor lamp at a neighbor’s house and made the sign for light, confirming what he knew. Within a few weeks, the twins were using sign language regularly to communicate with one another, and adults, and by their first birthday were even speaking a few words–a special feat for these babies who were born prematurely and with some developmental issues.

Though most babies have neither the cognitive skills nor dexterity to sign until about 9 months, demonstrating the process early provides consistency and allows them to begin to connect signs and words to the world around them. Choosing objects such as a sparkling light, milk, or an apple or toy — anything they really like — will provide incentive and help them understand the process a lot sooner.

Often described as an abbreviated form of ASL, concept pioneer Joseph Garcia, author of “Toddler Talk” and “Sign With Your Baby,” discovered that hearing children of deaf parents started communicating a lot earlier themselves using signs, as opposed to waiting for verbal skills to develop. Garcia and other child development experts agree that overall, when teaching babies to sign, saying the word simultaneously encourages actual language development, and often a lot sooner than it would without signing. For Connor and Xander McInerny, very soon after learning to utter a few words, the verbal floodgates opened, according to their mother, and they had a real vocabulary.

Make it Fun
At first it can be frustrating for parents and caregivers if they sign to a baby with no response. They may think the child doesn’t comprehend the idea, and become upset and impatient, even abandoning the concept. But developing brains, evolving fine motor skills, and tiny fingers take time to grasp the process, no pun intended. If you are relaxed and have fun, so will the child. In time, he or she will connect signing with positive feelings. Be sure to remember that in teaching these skills, it is important to establish consistency among anyone regularly in contact with the baby, such as grandparents, older siblings, and caregivers. Baby signs are relatively easy for people to learn, so building a network of “teachers” shouldn’t be difficult.

A host of books, DVDs and websites can help to facilitate baby signing, as can classes for babies and parents, which are offered in many areas through community centers, family networks, libraries, and more. With signing largely about communication, understanding, and intimacy between you and your baby, and its great benefits and rewards unlimited in terms of helping develop your child’s abilities, opening up the world this way to him or her is surely a special gift.

2 comments

1 Rita { 01.26.12 at 10:13 am }

I have found that the universal “baby sign” for “please” is extended arm and the hand opening and closing, sometimes the fingers rubbing together. Not only in my own (now grown) children, but have seen the sign on the news and stores!

2 Kent Bauer { 01.25.12 at 11:39 am }

Baby sign is not for every child. If you even suspect your child has speech and language delays you may be contributing to the problem with baby sign. You need to first determine why your child may have speech and language delays. There are many studies that show baby sign discourages speech and language developments in many special needs children. If your goal is for your child to have spoken language please proceed with caution before making baby sign your child’s preferred language.

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