Pre-verbal children using their hands to communicate goes back to the beginning of time and crosses all cultures and continents. It is natural that, once they are old enough to know what they want, need, feel, and see, but do not yet have the verbal skills to express themselves, babies will do whatever they can to get their point across. Every parent of a non-verbal child learns the “cues” their baby uses to communicate. For example, my niece would click her tongue when she was hungry and a friend’s child sniffed when he had a dirty diaper.
Baby Sign Language, an adapted version of American Sign Language, seeks to give babies a way to communicate using more universal cues. Had my sister not told me about my niece’s clicking, I would not have known what she was trying to tell me. By contrast, when another kid makes the sign for “eat” (five pinched fingers taping the lips), I know exactly what he wants.
The developers and promoters of baby signing extol the benefits for the child, including: larger expressive and receptive spoken language vocabularies; more advanced mental development; a reduction in problematic behaviors like tantrums resulting from frustration; and improved parent–child relationships. It is definitely a fad – like stainless steel sippy cups and baby-led weaning – but one I support based on my experience with my own son.
My husband and I became baby signing enthusiasts before our baby was even born. After reviewing the wealth of materials on the market, we bought The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Baby Sign Language and started teaching ourselves the “starter signs” – for milk, diaper change, eat, more, hurt, etc. We began using them with our son when he was about three months old. We must have looked ridiculous, making relatively complex gestures at him before he could even control his own limbs. But we persisted, even without any encouragement from our baby.
I honestly do not remember exactly when our son finally started signing back to us, probably around 8 months. By a year old, though, he was conveying most of his needs, as well as some observations that helped us engage with him. For example, playing in the park one day my son suddenly stopped what he was doing and looked to the sky. There was nothing there, so I asked him what he was looking for. He made the sign for “helicopter,” and only then did I hear the chopper approaching. He is also always on the lookout for birds, dogs, trains, and buses, and will make the corresponding sign excitedly when he spots one of these favorite things.
Every child I know who signs has his or her own favorite “words.” “More” is among the most popular, although my son prefers “finished,” since that sign releases him from his high chair or stroller. “Bath,” “wash hands,” “cat,” “please,” “kiss,” and “book” are frequent in my house, although by far, my son’s most-used sign is “milk” (which used to mean nursing, but now just gets him a sippy cup of cow’s milk). There’s no way to know which signs will resonate with a given child, so we just keep showing our son new ones, some of which he’ll adopt, and others that he’ll ignore. We have been making the sign for “diaper change” for more than a year, but our son still doesn’t do it because he never wants to stop playing for a diaper change. By contrast, he picked up “sleep” almost immediately, once he realized it resulted in night/naptime cuddles and delivery into his cot.
For anyone considering baby sign language, I can definitely recommend it. Does it delay spoken language development? Possibly. My son still doesn’t say any (English) words (he babbles constantly), but his 30+ sign vocabulary allows for pretty good communication. Plus, it’s easier to understand my son’s signs than most toddlers’ early words, and it’s definitely quieter, so I am in no rush for my son to start speaking. I don’t think there’s any perfect age to start teaching signs to a baby, so it’s never too early or too late. Plus, it’s really cute to watch your child try to make his hands do what yours are doing.