If you have already read my article Baby Sign Language Basics – What you need to know! then you are quite aware of the many benefits that baby sign language has to offer as well as some of the common myths you may encounter.
Today I want to share with you how you can teach your baby sign language! You do not need to be an expert in American Sign Language (ASL), as a matter of fact, you do not need any experience with sign language to get started.
I will now outline for you just how simple it is to teach your baby to sign by answering some common questions most parents have.
Near the end of the article I will tell you about the 10 Steps To Successfully Signing With Your Baby!
How Old Should My Baby Be When I Start Teaching Him Sign Language?
This is a very common question. You can start signing with your baby at any age. If you think about babies with deaf parents, they are exposed to sign language as soon as they are born. It is just like talking.
You start talking to your little one as soon as they arrive (or even while still in the womb).
However, as with speech and language development, it will take time for your baby to sign to you as a form of communication.
Most babies start signing to their parent’s around 8 months of age. Some will start as early as 6 months while others are closer to 12 months.
The earlier your baby is exposed to sign language the better the chance that they will start signing earlier.
How many signs should I teach my baby?
If you are not trying to teach sign language as a second language, then I always suggest just choosing a few key signs. Babies can communicate a lot with 25 to 50 signs. There is no need to go overboard.
Parent’s often become overwhelmed when they feel that they need to learn the sign for every word they say to their baby. In my classes, parent’s learn 6-8 signs a week over a 6 week period.
What is the difference between baby sign language and ASL?
Baby sign language is basically ASL with a few variations.
If you are only teaching your baby how to sign so that they can communicate with you earlier, then don’t get too hung up on the sign being ASL.
Some ASL signs require the use of both hands or varied movements with the hands/fingers. This can be tricky for a small baby to do as their ability to independently move their hands and fingers as an adult does isn’t quite there yet.
Baby sign language simplifies some of the more complex signs, making them easier for your baby to do. In my classes I often told parents to just make up a sign if they didn’t know the actual sign. As long as the parents/caregivers know the sign, then that is all that matters.
If you want your child to be able to communicate with members of the deaf community who use ASL, then it would be best to focus on ASL signs.
What signs should I start with?
This is where my background as a speech-language pathologist comes into play!
Most parent’s are told to start with “more” as a first sign. It is easy to do, simply touch your thumb to all fingers on both hands and then bring your hands together – just like in the picture below.
Babies catch onto this sign rather quickly.
However, the drawback is that this sign is usually taught around food.
Therefore, your baby may end up signing “more” anytime she is hungry. This will not get rid of your or her frustration.
I also avoid the sign for “please” as a first sign for the same reason.
“More” and “please” are very abstract words and they are meant to be accompanied with other more descriptive words.
A child signing “more” with no other sign, or simply saying “more” randomly does not tell you what he wants more of.
I also avoid teaching the signs for “yes” and “no” because I would rather my child nod or shake his head as everyone around him will know what that means.
Of course, as previously mentioned, if teaching ASL as a second language is the goal, then go ahead and teach these signs.
I recommend you start with concrete signs, so nouns and verbs.
Here is a list of signs that I like to begin with:
- all done
- potty (when it is age appropriate)
- favorite animals/pets (dog, cat, fish, bunny, duck, etc)
- favorite food/drinks (cereal, milk, water, cookie, banana, etc)
- favorite toys/objects (ball, car, baby/doll, blanket, bubbles, etc)
- clothing (hat, shoes, coat, pants, socks, etc)
Once your child is able to do a few of these signs (5-10) then you can add some abstract signs such as “more”, “please”, “thank you” as well as signs such as “hurt”, “hot”, “cold”, etc.
Steps To Baby Signing Success
If you follow these steps, you should have no problem incorporating signs on a daily basis and watch your baby’s expressive language blossom! (yes, signs are part of expressive language).
Always make sure that you are saying the word with the sign
Your baby needs to hear words, first and foremost, in order for him to speak. Seeing the sign and hearing the word at the same time also allows your child to make a connection with the 2. Once your baby starts signing to you, make sure that you respond with the word for the sign that she used.
Pick approximately 3-5 signs to start with
This will make it easier for you to remember to use the signs. Don’t worry about your baby getting overwhelmed if you are comfortable starting with more.
Just like talking, you speak freely with your baby, you don’t just pick a word here or there to teach her.
Once you are confident in the signs you decided to start with, and you know that you are incorporating them each time you say the word, then add a few more.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Repetition is so important for learning. A baby/child needs to hear words 100’s of times before he will use the word spontaneously. The same goes with signs.
If you only use a sign here and there, then it should not come as a surprise that your little one isn’t using the sign. Repeat both the sign and the word as often as possible, while still keeping the interaction natural. You don’t want to sound like a broken record.
Patience is your friend
If you start signing to your baby when she is very young (4 months or younger), you will need to be patient and wait a while for him to start signing to you.
If however, you wait to introduce signs until your baby is older (8 months or more), she will most likely start signing back sooner.
I encourage parents to start signing to their baby at a younger age because it allows for the parents to get comfortable with signing and it becomes part of daily life. So when your baby is 8 months or older, it will be like second nature to you and there is a chance your baby will be already picking up a few signs.
Pair the object with the sign/word
Whenever the object you are referring to is around, make sure that it is visible to the baby. Once he has seen it, then say the word along with the sign.
If you are signing “milk” for example, make sure that there is milk visible for the baby to see.
Once you feel like your baby knows what the word/sign means then you don’t need to have the object there at all times.
Provide hand over hand guidance
This will only work for some signs and not all babies like this, so give it a try and if your baby is resistant then don’t push it. Basically you want to use your hands to guide your babies hands into the correct position for the sign.
Don’t get hung up on the small stuff
Your baby will not be able to make the sign the way you do at the start due to limited motor skills. As long as you know what they are trying to sign, just keep modeling the correct way to do the sign.
As with speech, a child’s words aren’t clear when they first start talking. There is a lot of guess work involved!
Allow for flexibility
If your goal is not to teach ASL to your child as a language then feel free to make up signs. Some ASL signs are quite complicated so feel free to simplify the sign. Just make sure that those that interact with your child on a regular basis are aware of how you and your child are making the sign.
Make signing part of day to day life
Like learning a new language, if you are only hearing words here and there you will never learn to communicate in that language. The same goes for teaching a baby to sign.
If you are only modeling signs here and there it shouldn’t come as a surprise that your baby or toddler isn’t using any signs.
Some parents find it easy to pick a part of the day, routine or activity to first start focusing on signing to make it a habit.
All babies eat, so I often suggest working on incorporating signs during mealtimes. Once you remember to always use signs during meals, then add in bath time. Continue to add in times that you will try to remember to sign with your baby!
Avoid signs for abstract words
Scroll back up to “What Signs Should I Start With?” for the explanation of why certain words/signs should be avoided at the start.
Do I Need To Take A Baby Sign Language Class To Get Started?
The answer to this is actually no. There are many materials available to purchase for home use. I personally recommend the Baby Signs® Complete Starter Kit as it has everything you need to get started.
However, there are benefits to participating in a baby sign language class with your little one.
- interacting with other parents
- being able to ask the instructor questions
- enjoying quality time with your baby
- learning new songs and activities
- seeing other babies learn to sign
- hearing stories from other parents
If you are interested in taking a class, I highly recommend the classes by Baby Signs® (now known as Baby Signs Too).
To find a certified Baby Signs® instructor in your area, please click here. (*I do not receive any payment for referring you to these classes. As a former independent Baby Signs® Instructor this is the program I always recommend*).
If they don’t offer classes in your area, a quick google search should give you many results.
Make sure to find a class that isn’t too focused on ASL (your goal isn’t to teach your child a second language) and teaches only a handful of signs per class.
No need to go overboard is signing with your baby is meant to be a transition until spoken words start happening. Just like crawling is a transition to walking!
Let me know if you have any questions regarding teaching your baby sign language!