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Baby Sign Language - Getting Started

What is Baby Sign Language?

Do you ever wonder what's going on in your baby's head and wish you had a way to understand what they were trying to tell you in these early months?

While mind reading is still beyond us, you might just find that baby sign language can help.

From just a few months old babies start to use gestures as part of their communication process, for example lifting their arms when they want to be picked up. Sign language makes it possible for babies to communicate more effectively by helping them to link particular gestures or hand movements with different words or concepts, in effect, translating those gestures into a language that you can both understand.

Simple sign language to use with your baby is not difficult to learn, the hardest part is often getting into the habit of using those signs on a day to day basis so that your baby sees them often enough to make the connection between the sign you are making and the thing it refers to. Quite quickly though they will show understanding of these signs when seen repeatedly and then begin to use the signs as they relate to their needs and wants.

Consistency is the key factor in sign language being effective. The more baby sees a sign linked with a word or concept and repeated in the same context the more quickly he or she will make the link between the sign and what it represents. Once this connection has been made then your little one signing back to you will follow.

How to Get Started

Once you are using sign language regularly with your baby you will soon start to reap the benefits of no longer having to try to guess what it is they are trying to tell you. Depending on their age, it will take you baby a little time to get the idea of what you are doing and start to sign back to you, but the perseverance it takes in those early days really will pay off if you keep at it, with less tantrums, faster language development, and a closer bond from the greater understanding you have of each other, just a few of the benefits.

Often the hardest part though is getting started, so here are a few tips to help you get going when introducing sign language to your little one. Follow these and you can start to get the benefits signing can bring in the shortest time possible!

  • Start with around 6 to 12 signs. This is enough to enable you to sign in the variety and quantity of contexts for your baby to start to make associations between the sign and what it represents without being too overwhelming. Try to introduce too many signs at once and your baby won't absorb them, they need to see the same signs over and over again to make the connection between the sign, word and what you are signing about. Once they get the concept of a gesture relating to a particular thing you can start to add in more signs and build their signing vocabulary from there.

  • Always say the word as you sign it. Signing is not a substitute for talking with your baby, but an additional way to enhance communication, so simply add signs to the everyday conversations you have with your baby - you will be surprised at how easy it is once you start to do it!

  • Be consistent. As mentioned above, the most important thing when introducing sign language is to use it every day. Your baby won't remember if you used a sign with them a week ago and then not again until today, but if they see you make the same gesture, referring to the same thing, again and again, day after day, they will soon start to make the connection and will recognise, and respond to the sign quite quickly.

Some Great Starter Signs

Try some of these everyday signs to get you started.

Milk is a great starter sign as you have lots of opportunities to use it throughout the day, whenever you little one has their milk. They tend to recognise this one quite quickly and get excited when they see it!

To make the sign:

Open and close your fist in front of you, almost like milking a cow.

This is a useful sign that can be used in lots of situations. Ideal for asking if baby would like more to eat or drink, but you may also want to ask if they would like more singing, more stories, more tickles, more bubbles for example. A good way to help baby understand more is to pause the activity you are doing, use the sign and ask if baby would like more of whatever it is, and then continue.

To make the sign:

Curve your hands and tap the fingers of each hand together in front of you.

Used together with the sign for more you can give your baby a voice with just these two simple gestures. Do they want more of whatever you are doing, or are they all done. It is also a useful sign to help baby transition between activities, which some babies find difficult. For example when it is time to get out of the bath you can sign that bath time is “all done”, or when leaving a friend’s house that play time is “all done”, making that transition process easier.

To make the sign:

Start with your hands open and palms facing up, then flip your hands over so palms are facing down.

Bath is another good sign to build into baby’s routine, as it's likely to be something they do regularly and that most babies enjoy. As well as showing baby the sign you can also make it on their body so that they can feel it too. This is ideal if they are looking at the bath just before getting in for example. Once they are in the bath and are looking at you, you can reinforce the sign be making again on yourself.

To make the sign:

Make fists with both hands with thumbs pointed up, and move them up and down on your chest as if scrubbing.

Another great sign to use when you are starting out with signing because it is a very general sign, providing the opportunity to use a sign during everyday communication with baby even if only a few signs are known. Aside from sleeping and eating almost anytime is play time for baby so use the play sign to talk about those activities you are doing together or the toy they are playing with even if you don’t know any other signs related to them.

To make the sign:

Extend your thumb and little finger on each hand and twist hands side to side from the wrist.

Going Further with Signing

Once you have got going with the basics of signing you can increase the rate at which your child learns and uses signs using some of these ideas:

  • Signing often, and creating many and varied opportunities where you use signs and invite your child to sign back, eg ask a question using a sign, ask your child to “tell me with your hands” (tap child’s hands to increase understanding)

  • Adapting your use of signs to make it easier for your child to see, feel and use them, eg sign directly on to your child’s body or the object you are talking about, or put your hands over your child’s hands and make the sign together.

  • Recognising, encouraging and responding to any attempts to sign even when you are not sure if it was a sign. A baby’s early attempts at signs will often be a loose approximation of the sign you make, eg clapping for the sign BALL. Once your child realises you understand their attempts at signing they will be motivated to continue and use more signs.

  • Continue to use signs as speech emerges to reinforce and clarify spoken words.

Learn Baby Sign Language at Tots Play

At Tots Play classes you will learn around 30 simple signs for everyday activities and objects you will commonly come across through your day, at our Discovery Tots classes, increasing to around 50 to include signs for animals and play time fun when they move up to Social Tots.

We also give you lots more tips like the ones above for bringing sign language into your everyday life and really making it an effective communication tool between you and your baby in the months before speech emerges, and use songs and games to make it really fun for you both too. You can even practice the songs at home by downloading them HERE.

Wouldn't you like to know what your baby wants and needs long before they are able to express themselves with words? That's just one of the benefits of teaching your baby to sign, so why not get started today? Click HERE to find a class near you and learn baby sign language and so much more.

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