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Teaching Your Baby How to Sign, and 10 Starter Signs
I was introduced to the concept of teaching my pre-verbal daughter sign language over eight years ago. I noticed a fellow new mom showing her daughter the sign for “all done,” when finished with a meal, and was in amazement when the infant signed back. We had been dealing with bouts of food throwing and lots of messes, so was intrigued by the concept of being able to give a voice to my daughter who could not yet speak. I looked into it some more, bought a book that specialized in baby sign language, and we were on our way. By the time my daughter was 18 months old and just beginning to form verbal words on her own, she had learned over 50 signs in baby sign language. It was not only fun and exciting for both of us, to teach and learn this cool way to communicate, but it helped resolve a lot of potential frustration, by giving her a way to speak her wants and needs. Since then, I’ve taught my two other babies the basics of infant sign language, with a decent amount of success. While neither of my sons seem to show the immense interest in learning a vast quantity of signs, they did and have learned the basics and major signs that convey the most important messages, like more, milk and all done.
Here are 10 common signs that occur in most everyday speech that I’d recommend starting off teaching to your baby. If you’re thinking of teaching baby sign language to your little one, remember to always say the word verbally, in addition to completing the sign.
When Hayden is finished with a meal or playing with a certain toy, I try to anticipate this need and show him the sign for all done, so he can learn to use that sign for communicating, instead of throwing his food, plate or toy across the room. You hold up your hands and wave them, while simultaneously saying, “all done.”
If he’s not all done but instead wants more; more food, more milk, more play time, I put my finger tips together and say “more.” This is the first sign he learned, and the most commonly used one because more is more when it comes to a baby’s life. More snacks, more milk, more playtime, more mommy!
Hayden’s appetite is voracious these days and so he has been doing a ton of grunting and pointing at things all over the kitchen, trying to snatch food out of our hands, and never seeming to be full. We have been teaching him the sign for eat so we can discern when he is hungry, especially when we are out and about and he can’t physically point to the kitchen, telling us he wants what’s in there.
Signing for milk is a very easy gesture of squeezing your hand in and out, to mimic the motion of milking a cow. We’ve been working on teaching this one to Hayden, with some mild success, for a couple of months now. At first he used it as a sign for wanting to breastfeed, but now he occasionally signs for it when he wants milk in his sippy cup.
With our first two children, we only taught them the sign for milk, but we are now teaching Hayden the sign for water as well because his thirst can’t seem to be quenched. Since we don’t want him just drinking milk, we figured we should teach him the language for water as well so he can learn that quenching thirst comes from both milk and water.
Because it’s never too early to start teaching a bit of manners, we follow up signing all requests with please. So when Hayden starts grunting, we verbally say the word as we’re signing it, in a questioning tone, “Hayden, do you want more, please?” Remember, in the beginning you are modeling the behavior and verbally speaking the language at the same time. It will not come immediately, but with repetition and consistency, you will see some results.
Eventually, the end goal is for your child to understand the meaning behind please and thank you, not just to say it for the sake of saying it (or signing it). But in the beginning you are teaching them the appropriate timing of using such manners, so that they eventually sign or say them on their own. So with thank you, we are not forcing him to sign the words, but we sign them ourselves when he shares his toys with us, or gives us a snack from his tray, or gives us an open-mouthed kiss.
Of course baby has to know the sign for one of the most important people in his life! We’ve been teaching him mommy and daddy simply to build up his verbal repertoire, as he already knows full well who we all are by now.
Next to eating, Hayden’s favorite past time is going outside. For walks, to crawl around on the ground or take a ride in his swing, the boy just loves being outside. But he is driving us just a bit crazy with his loud grunting and crying to try and convey what he wants. It often takes a few minutes of frustration on both our parts before we finally understand, often by him crawling to the door and pointing, that he wants to go out. So we thought for Hayden, this was a perfect sign to teach our little nature lover.
Believe it or not, but there are rare children who will actually admit to being tired and wanting to go to bed. I know, it sounds crazy but it’s true! Our first could be falling asleep in her food and never admit to being tired, but our middle child will often march himself straight to bed and go to sleep all on his own. For this reason I think learning a sign such as bed is advantageous so that we can help guide our babies to healthy sleep patterns, but recognizing when it’s time to go to bed (fussiness), and naming the solution to the fussiness (going to bed). It’s an easy sign to learn, and very cute once they start doing it.
All sign images via Baby Sign Language. Visit their site for a downloadable wall chart of 20+ basic signs.