How I became the crazy Baby-Signs-woman (and how you could, too!)

When I was pregnant I heard about this quirky little thing called Baby Sign Language. Apparently – I was told – babies can learn how to use sign language before they can speak. Baby Sign Language is mostly advertised as being good to reduce toddler frustration (at not being able to tell you what they really, really want right now!). I googled it and found this super-cute (if a bit manic) video:

The whole thing sounded interesting and after all if monkeys can sign, I figured my little one could, too!… But watching the video I thought “This baby can do 30 signs! That is crazy. If I do it I’ll just teach my kid about 5 or 10 signs, the really important things she needs to communicate to me – sleep, toilet, food, water… that kind of thing. Surely the woman in the video is some kind of pushy-super-uber-mom with too much time on her hands. I’ll just keep it simple and help my kid express the key things that will keep her from wigging out.” Good plan. God laughed.

At 19 months my kid had over 200 signs. How the ‘eck did that happen?!

Gzzzzzzzzzzzz – rewind a bit, again.

This is how it went down. After hearing about it, still not entirely convinced, I got out the book Baby Signs by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn (albeit in its first edition – which is kind of sweet in its dated-ness). The book got me and I got really, really into this idea of teaching my kid to sign. I have since realised that I have a keen interest in language and watching and supporting my kid acquire hers, in general… but I didn’t know that then, this was just the start of the journey.

Through my research, I discovered sign language has a few (inter-related) advantages and I liked them all:

  1. It helps your baby communicate with you – telling you what is important to them and what they want you to focus on, with them
  2. It helps you know what is going on for them, opening a (super-interesting) window on your child’s mind and helping you get even closer to them
  3. It reduces the frustration, for your child, of knowing what they want but not being able to tell you
  4. It acts as a bridge to language, priming their brain to learn the to-and-fro of communication more easily and earlier
  5. It improves cognitive function and IQ – and research indicates the results are lasting
  6. It is good fun [honestly that is probably the main reason we went so far with it: because I was loving it, too]
  7. It is a great language to share as a family. You and your partner can have fun signing across a crowded room or over your kid’s head when they are not looking :p  And older siblings often love showing signs to their new little sibs :)

This book taught me many of my first signs. At this stage, though, I became convinced it would really help if both parents were on board, so I thought the easiest and most fun way to involve NinjaDad would be to go to a class – so he/we could learn in a social setting. As luck would have it, a friend decided to host a class at her house – so we joined that one. The instructor would come in and teach us, on a weekend – perfect! And so it was that NinjaDad started to get really excited by it, too.

We taught our kid her first sign when she was six months old. That sign was food and I repeated it every time she had a meal. She signed her first word when she was nine months old. That means there was a three month gap in which I was signing frantically to her and I was getting nothing back. I almost gave up. Her first sign was ‘fan’ – as in ceiling fan. Her next two signs were ‘duck’ and ‘light’. She didn’t sign ‘food’ until she was over a year old (and had well over 50 signs under her belt). That taught me my first lesson: she is going to be most enthusiastic and motivated to sign about the things that she finds interesting not about the things I think are important. Hahahah! I guess I should be flattered, as a mom, that she never felt she had an urgent need to ask for food…
Then we just kept going. I was forever wondering when we’d stop. Oh, I’ll only teach her 50 or so. But then we’d get to 50 and her thirst for knowing more and more would egg me on. She would point at things and look at me expectantly. So I bought a book, initially a simple ASL visual dictionary, so I could look up the signs she wanted to learn from me. Eventually that book stopped fulfilling all our needs (as it was not geared to kids, I guess) and I caughtened on to the fact that the easiest way to look up signs is online. And we were off. Her signed vocab kept growing and growing. And, alongside, her first words were coming in, too.
Then, at around 18 months there was a shift, and her interest in spoken words became much more acute than her interest in signs. At 19 months, as I said, she had just over 200 signs and coincidentally she had 200 spoken words, too (yes I kept lists). And that is where it stopped. She just started acquiring so many new spoken words and at such a speed that she seemed to have no need for signs any more. She was off.
And here is that other thing they say about signers: they sometimes use spoken words a little later, but they catch up quickly and often overtake the ‘average’ non-signing kid. Signing kids tend to have an aptitude for language, acquiring new words and moving on to complex sentences earlier than otherwise expected.
Honestly it is hard to tell for me. Most of my AP friends’ babies have stupidly large vocabs for their ages. And, of course, Anya (giving up on nicknames!!) is billingual, too, so goodness knows what that does to all this but I can say (with frank admiration) that at 21 months she speaks in five and six word sentences, with aplomb.
Yes, some of it is ‘nature’. Some kids are more interested in language than others, of course. But I am also convinced (and studies show) that there is more to it, too. There are things that help your kid develop language (and subsequently boost their IQ), such as:
  • speaking with them, describing the world and what you are doing, ‘narrating’ your day
  • developing ‘shared focus’ – speaking about what they are  looking at or interacting with in that moment, following their natural interest
  • getting down at eye level and letting them read your lips, literally (giving them valuable information about how to form their mouths around the words)
  • reading books, singing songs together, having fun with language and sounds
  • being supportive, positive and responsive when children attempt to communicate, in any form

and

  • teaching kids sign-language
So, if your baby is between say 4 and 14 months old and you want to teach them sign language, here are some tips for starting:
  1. get a book on baby sign language (from the library?) to get you into it and/or
  2. go online and read more about the history and benefits of it
  3. go to a local Baby Signs or baby ASL class or
  4. just jump right in: go straight to a sign language site and learn a few signs to teach your baby and then follow their lead on which to learn next
  5. involve your partner and other family members
  6. be consistent – keep repeating the sign every time the object or action appears in your shared field of view
  7. make sure you sign about what they are interested in or looking at at the time (try not to direct them to look at things, so much – it is more effective to ‘sports-cast’ the world from their eye’s view than to try to get them to look at what we think they should/would be interested in, all the time)
  8. be patient – depending on your kid’s age and how consistent you are with it, it could take many months before they produce their first sign back to you. The younger the child, the longer it takes
  9. check-out the Baby Sign books for kids for another cute way to show your kid some signs – and let them think they can ‘read’
  10. have fun with it, include lots of silly, playful signs. Does your child play with your kitty a lot? Learn the sign for cat. Does your kid love balloons? That is a super-sweet sign.

And remember ASL is a real language (sorry if that is too obvious to bear!) which means that your kid will be (at least) billingual if you teach them ASL. If you keep it up with them, which some families chose to do, it opens a world of opportunity up to them: ASL can be taken for credit in College, it can lead to a career or vocation in interpreting or teaching sign language (for the kids or the hearing impaired) and, perhaps most importantly, it can help communicate with a group of people, a community which otherwise can be so separate from this hearing community of ours. This could even be a small step in bringing these two worlds closer. But let’s keep it basic for now. After all, I am the ‘crazy baby signs woman’, my kid knows 200 signs which means I know considerably more than that and I still can’t really communicate with a true signer. I can’t keep up. But this is a step, a fun step in the right direction and a great leap for your kid’s language skills. Do it. I promise you’ll (eventually) have lots of fun with it!

— — —
Did you teach your kid(s) signing? How was it for you? Did they take to it? Did you find you became the crazy-sign-language-parent, too?

— — —

P.S. this post is littered with links – check ‘em out for more tips, research and resources.
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23 thoughts on “How I became the crazy Baby-Signs-woman (and how you could, too!)

  1. I just started being the Crazy Baby Signing Lady too! We have only been doing it for a couple of weeks but it is a lot of fun. Currently my LO’s favourite nursery rhyme is one that we sign! :) Im looking forward to our journey and cant wait to see what he signs back.

  2. I love this post! I taught my first daughter sign language when she was around 9 months old and it only took her a few weeks to make a sign back at me which was “more”. I was so excited! She never got anywhere near as many words as yours but she did get quite the vocabulary and it definitely did help her to not get frustrated. She never had a tantrum because she couldn’t communicate with us. I am now just starting to teach it to my almost 6 month old and I’m getting help from my older daughter. She is starting to remember the signs for things that she hasn’t used in a long time because she took right off with the spoken language very quickly. So that’ll definitely help the little one since she will probably just want to do everything like her big sis! I think I’m going to get a book this time to have more signs on hand. :-) Oh yeah, and I’ve been teaching my older daughter French at the same time and she picks up language really quickly now. I think the sign language definitely helped with that.

    • Yeah, they say the older they are the quicker they pick it up (for kind of obvious, developmental reasons, I guess). That must be much easier to deal with – shorter wait!

      All the comments on facebook have been of an ilk – all the signers are coming out and sharing that their kids’ language took off, to everyone’s amazement. This is some powerful tool!

      That is very cool that your daughter is reminding all her old signs and sharing them with your little one – fabulous.

  3. wow, great article! being a speech pathologist who teaches kids with complex communication needs to sign, i love to see signing in the ‘mainstream’. I also taught my kids to sign- my first born wasn’t too keen- he spoke his first word at 9 months, so speech was easier for him, though my second born took his time with speech- and used over 50 signs before his speech took off at 16 months of age. great article, full of great links and resources. i’d just argue your point about ‘signers using spoken language a litter later’- the research actually supports the view that signing encourages speech instead of delaying it. maybe your wee one spoke a bit later due to bilingualism, which can impact language acquisition milestones a bit. anyway, i applaud your great article and enthusiasm about signing. yay!!

    • Hi Angie,

      cool work you do – thank you for it. Yes, I agree, I read that research… it just doesn’t seem to be borne out by the experience of the parents I know (including us, yes but) many of whose kids are not billingual. You are right, I should trust the research more than the little anecdotes of friends and family and yet, I guess, without noticing it that coloured my view. Thanks for re-setting me straight! :) And wow about the little one who spoke at 9 months. Is he still a little genius today? :D

  4. This is a great post! Thank you for sharing!

    I started signing with my first with the same intentions. It worked because he was easily frustrated and our life would have been 100x worse had we not done any signs. Signing saved me many times from pulling my hair out. It also brought so much joy to our lives and our extended family to be able to see inside his mind and to actually converse with him at a very early age.

    I didn’t keep good lists but I know he had 30+ signs at 22m that helped him tell his grandma what he needed when I was gone having baby #2. When he started talking he was using 3-word sentences and eventually dropped the signs.

  5. This is amazing! I decided not to sign with BiP because I felt with French and English it would be too much for her to handle but I really, really regret it. At 18m she doesn’t really talk as much as her peers but she can say a lot of words in French and English and doesn’t mix them up.

    I’ve shown her a few signs and she gets them right away. I am sure if I’d been signing with her from the beginning communication would have been a LOT easier!

    • Hey Ameena,

      I have got to say that signing actually really helps the billingual thing, from my experience… sorry to say this now… it worked really well to bridge the languages as she’d see the same sign with both forms of the word and I would have to break the ‘one person, one language’ rule we are trying to stick to. She would just see from context and sign that it was the same word. I totally get the trepidation, though. Technically Anya could be learning Cantonese (as well as English and Portuguese) right now, but we didn’t introduce it ‘cos we were afraid it would jumble her – even though I have read the research that clearly shows they can learn up to 7 languages in one go, when they are this little. Human brains – especially the little ones – are REALLY amazing. For you… next time?? :D

  6. Great post. We love signing too! My kiddos are 3yo and 2yo and we love to sign together even though they can communicate all of their needs with words. We make games, it’s calming for them, they do what I ask more readily if I use a sign (i.e please sit down) and it’s effective in social situations too (at a music festival with loud music my daughter, then 2yo, was gung-ho for the bouncy castle and I was able to sign for her to stop, wait for Daddy because he had the bag with the money!!) We use Signing Time and loads of the songs on their DVD’s have become part of our daily life too – it’s fun. I really want to learn to use ASL in depth so I can sign properly as I think we would like to continue using it for ourselves and yes because it is a real language to communicate with others too!

    • Wow – that is so cool that you are stlil using it. We still use it a little with our 21.5mo :) I, too, would love to learn it more. Even considered teaching baby signs… but that would take a lot of studying that I am not in a place to do right now (so many other things I want to do, too). That is very inspiring that you are still using it, though – you are truly giving them another language and a wider world.

  7. I worked with language delayed pre-schoolers when I was a research assistant at a local hospital. I learned a bit of ASL back then & then helped teach some basics to some of our wee ones. I also noticed gestures they would consistently use themselves to communicate so would memorize them as they were often different for each child. Mind you they all did the similar ones for “cold”, “eat” & “drink”. Then in my next year of college I took a sign language course. My daughter was born a couple of days after I finished the last of my courses & days before my graduation. I started teaching her sign language when NO ONE else had heard of it. This was back in 1990. People would come forward & say sorry she was deaf. LOL! Ummm..she can hear! I am teaching her to communicate with me! It worked so well in regards to her level of decreased frustration. Babies can communicate many months or years before they can talk! I taught all 7 of my children. My identical twin girls would sign to each other & even made up their own secret signs they knew between them, but kept secret from our family! I also taught my 6 day-care children. Their parents were amazed & thrilled. The most exciting time was watching one of my day-care children signing to another little girl he played with when he wasn’t with me. I asked the girls mom about her teaching her daughter to sign. She then informed me that she did not teach him, instead the other child (MY day-care child) had taught her. WOW! I then went on to teach a set of foster twin babies how to sign. They were both developmentally & physically delayed but picked up sign very quickly! It was so incredible to see! I was blessed with another set of twins to foster & they were even more delayed. They took a bit longer to catch on, but once they did….look out! Other people in our community were also helpful in that they would use basic sign & then in return, expect it back. Eg: “please” & “thank-you”. Even after the children learned to speak they would fill in with a sign if they could not pronounce the word well yet. Mommy, (sign) “please”, (sign) “eat”, (sign) “cookie”. Mommy, (sign) “more”, (sign) “drink”,(sign) “please”. Mommy, more (sign)”drink”, please (peas). They were connecting words together in sign, even before they could really talk! AMAZING. So…I was also a crazy mom too. (Well in more ways then just signing!)

  8. I’ve signed with all 3 of my children. When my eldest was 9 months old he pointed to a photo of my cousin wearing a black and white striped shirt and signed ‘zebra’. He was so happy when I understood he was telling me it was like a zebra and I was amazed that at such a young age he was able to communicate that to me. Without signing I would never have known he was thinking that, it has gave me a window into all of my babies minds and I’ve been an advocate of it ever since.
    Incidently my eldest is almost 7 and has a huge interest in animals – I wonder if that interest started with all the animal pictures we looked at and signed together at a young age.

    • WOW that is fabulous! and YES that is exactly one of the things I most enjoyed about signing, too – finding out the amazing things our kids already notice and know, even this young. Your illustration is just perfect, though. So sweet!

  9. We worked on signing and found that our son was teaching us what his signs meant rather than the other way around. It still worked and helped us all communicate better.

    • Oh, yeah, that is awesome! Anya made some up, too and some I made up on the spur of the moment but mostly we stuck to ASL-ish, if nothing else so she could understand other signing parents – and there are a lot of them over this neck of the Californian woods :p

  10. I didn’t sign with my first baby, but I did with my second – because our nanny at the time did with her children, so she naturally did it with mine. My son’s first word AND sign happened at the very same time – APPLE – at 10 months. He was an early talker, and didn’t really use signs much at all, preferring to talk, but we still used them, and still do now even at 4.5 & 7 years old. It helps to know certain signs from across a room – like “are you okay?” “are you ready to go” “i love you” “good job” or “pay attention”. ;) We also like to sign along with songs on the radio – it’s fun to figure out the words/signs.

    PS: We really liked the “Signing Time” series of movies; I didn’t see you mention those.

    • Hey Kelly,

      That is very cool. I am going to have to go off and learn those sentences, now – I agree it would be fun to have some basic sentences down for crowded rooms. As for the link – I actually embeded a link (or two) to them. I didn’t use the videos myself but I know many who swear by them and had lots of fun bonding with their kids over them. Cheers for popping in!

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