While pregnant I did a great deal of research on baby development. I came across a few interesting websites that showed how to teach sign language to babies. I learned that sign language is a great way to provide a means of communication to children who may not yet have the ability to speak (usually referred to as a pre-verbal baby). A lot of frustration occurs between parent and child because although the child may know what (s)he wants, (s)he may not be able to communicate. There's no way to "get through" to the adult! There's a lot of pointing and guessing and trial and error.
A great explanation comes from a website I found to be very helpful, My Smart Hands:
Another advantage is that signing babies tend to have high self-esteems as a result of being secure in their environments. If a child can easily communicate their needs to you then they are going to feel a sense of security. They want something, they can tell you what they want, and you can quickly and easily fulfill his/her needs. If a baby has no way to communicate their wants to you then it will take you longer to figure out what he/she wants which may make everyone a little frustrated in the meantime.There are also the educational advantages that signing brings to a child as they get a little older. Signing babies tend to have larger vocabularies once they start talking because they’ve been able to use more advanced language and are often asked more elaborate questions because their comprehension is clear to the parent.
How We Got Started
We started with a basic sign when Phillip was about 5 months old: "milk". (Open and close one hand as if you're milking a cow. Great image, I know). I would show him the sign before, during, and after nursing him, while also saying "milk". We would also say the word and show him the sign when he would get a bottle. Eventually he picked it up and would sign "milk" when he was hungry or when he saw me.
Yes, my name was "Milk" for a good 5 months after he learned how to sign. Go figure.
Using the same process of showing the sign/speaking the word, we taught him the signs for "water", "please", "more", "eat", and "banana". Although he didn't really start to use these signs on his own until about 12 months, he could sign them with no problem when prompted. I'd ask if he'd like a cup of water and he'd sign "water". I would also remind him to ask nicely and he'd sign "please" (never too early to learn manners in my opinion).
One day he was signing for a banana that he saw on the counter. He was very excited and so desperate to get his favorite treat! All of a sudden he started to sign "eat" and then put together the signs for "more, please". It was a very exciting moment for us, to see our persistence paying off!
At barely a year, he was able to communicate to us that he'd like to "eat more banana, please".
It was amazing!
Won't Sign Language Deter Him From Speaking?
Nope. If anything, it helps to build his vocabulary.
From My Smart Hands:
The answer to this is 100% no! There have been zero studies that have shown signing to hinder language. In fact, all of the studies on signing with children show that signing accelerates language in many cases. People confuse speech and language. A child who signs is using language, more language in fact than a non-signing child. Speech is the ability to form sounds to produce the language. Some children don’t develop the ability to speak until much later than other children. The reality is babies want to talk, they babble all the time. When they are able to talk, they will. It is not easier to sign than talk. It is much easier for a child to talk. However, when you don’t have that ability then signing is easier and a great bridge until speech does develop.
We are so glad we chose to teach him how to sign. Meal times are not stressful at all because he knows how to ask for water or for his favorite foods. Within the past week, he's also learned how to sign his favorite toy, "ball" (touch your fingertips together like you're holding a ball).
For what it's worth, we have no real prior experience with sign language. All the signs we've learned have been through the American Sign Language dictionaries available throughout the internet and on iPad apps. We simply picked a few, practiced and memorized them, and then consistently used them when the word would come up during the day. Our sitter doesn't use sign language with Phillip yet he is still able to communicate with us when he is home =)
Thinking About Teaching Your Little One To Sign?
The biggest tips I can give are:
1) Be Consistent- your baby may take a few months before they'll be able to sign back to you. Don't get discouraged. Once Phillip picked up his first couple of signs, he's been able to pick up new signs even faster.
2) Learn as many signs as you can. At first it's helpful to start with one or two signs but the trouble we came across was that we were running out of signs to teach him! We had to learn other signs rather quickly. I'm so thankful for technology so that we could look signs up with ease.
3) Be consistent.
4) Give lots of praise! When Phillip signs, I always tell him, "Great job!" and 99.99% of the time give him what he asks for. Granted, he really only asks for more water and bananas so I'm not indulging him much, but I want to encourage him to keep signing! It especially warms my heart when he adds "please" to his signs- such a sweet boy =)
5) Did I mention be consistent? It's important!
Here's a short clip of him signing during dinner time. We're learning new signs every day to keep up with him!