Learning Sign Language with Babies and Children

Signing with Children for Fun and Communication

My daughter “Sweets” is now 16 months old, and she doesn’t talk. She is currently being evaluated by specialists and is enrolled in developmental therapy, but she doesn’t talk yet. At all. Not even “mama”.

She is learning to sign though!

We already know lots of American Sign Language (ASL) vocabulary in our family – we signed for fun and early communication with Munchkin (4 years old) since she was a baby, and her speech developed typically. We have the entire collection of Signing Time episodes, and Munchkin knew about 50 signs by the time she was Sweets’ age (Munchkin even auditioned for Baby Signing Time!). So when the therapist said we should sign with Sweets, we knew that would be easy – we were already doing it!

For my typically developing child, signing supplemented her communication as a baby and became a fun activity for us to learn together as she got older. For my developmentally delayed child, signing is her only method of communication at this point. Sweets can do about 8-10 signs now, but mostly uses two of them at this point – MILK (as in “mama’s milk”) and MORE.

It has been wonderful to see her learn that she can communicate through signing. Now that she can sign MILK (“breastmilk,” that is), she does it all the time! I think it’s more because it’s fun to ask rather than because she really wants to nurse all the time. I imagine her inner monologue:

“Hey – I can do this thing with my hand . . . and mama stops what she’s doing and pays attention to me . . . and then I get to nurse! How cool is that?! Let’s see if it works again. Yep! Again? Yes! This is awesome power!”

Because I respond to her signing, it encourages her to ask again. And this is teaching her the function of language even though she can’t speak yet. I think it has been especially meaningful for her to learn to sign MILK because nursing is very important to her.

Signing for Communication

The primary benefit that most people desire when they sign with their hearing baby is added communication with a baby who is pre-verbal. When a pre-verbal baby or toddler can communicate her needs, she has less frustration and less need for crying and tantrums. But besides communicating basic needs, signing can also give you a window into the thoughts of your small child.

I remember a time when I was carrying 13 month old Munchkin to the car, and she suddenly started signing BIRD excitedly. I looked around, and indeed there was a bird in the tree nearby! I had known that she could sign BIRD when looking at a picture of a bird in a book, but this was the first time that she really initiated a sign to indicate an interest in the world around her rather than to express a need. It really made me aware at that moment that she was an actual little person inside this little baby body, with her own thoughts that I wasn’t necessarily aware of, and her thoughts were about more than just her basic needs. I loved that I had that window into her thoughts at that young age.

Other Practical Benefits of Signing

Besides the obvious benefit of communication with your pre-verbal child, sign language also has benefits for your child even after she is verbal. Your child can communicate with you discreetly and quietly when you are in public. Some people have “code words” for their toddlers to use when asking to nurse in public because they don’t want to advertise their nursing to everyone. Signing accomplishes the same goal of discretion when your toddler asks to nurse in front of others.

Another benefit is that your little one can ask to nurse without interrupting your adult conversations. This benefit isn’t limited to just nursing of course. When I was a little girl my mother taught me to sign TOILET when I needed to use the bathroom in public places, which worked well if she was in the middle of conversation with other adults or if I was just feeling too shy to mention it out loud. Another benefit is that signing can be used across a distance when speaking would be impractical or ineffective. I recently used signing in this way from across the room in a restaurant – “YOU WANT WATER, MILK – WHICH?” – and Munchkin was able to tell me what kind of drink she wanted me to order for her.

How Early Can I Start Signing with My Baby?

When your baby is able to make controlled hand movements, your baby can start signing. Can your baby clap, wave, or point? That’s no different from signing! For many babies, this happens around 8-12 months old. You can sign with baby from the start if you want, or you can wait to start signing until your baby can wave. By the way, when I taught my girls to wave, I taught them to do a “princess wave” with an open hand that rotates at the wrist. Many people use a wave with a baby that involves folding the fingers down over the palm, but I find this to be hard to distinguish from the MILK sign, so I chose not to use that type of wave to avoid confusion.

Baby Signs vs ASL

If your goal with signing is just to serve as a bridge of communication before your child is able to communicate verbally, then you may consider “baby signs” instead of ASL. The advantages of baby signs are that they are supposed to be easier for babies to do, and you can make up your own signs instead of having to learn vocabulary first.

I am not worried that ASL signs might be “too hard” for my baby any more than I worry that English words are too hard for her. Babies learn to sign by first doing a “baby talk” version of signs the same way that they do with verbal language, and with practice they learn to sign properly. I prefer to use ASL signs because ASL is a real language, just like English.

By teaching ASL and continuing to use signs after my children learn to talk, I am giving them the building blocks for learning a second language. Because we use real ASL signs and not made-up signs, anyone else who knows ASL signs can understand and communicate with my child too. This has been helpful at daycare, where our teacher also uses ASL signs in the classroom at our request. And one day in the future, my daughter might meet a child whose primary language is ASL, and they will be able to communicate together! That could never happen with baby signs.

Do (did) you use sign language with your children? Share your experiences in the comments.

Stop by Code Name: Mama today for more on what signs you can use to represent “breastfeeding,” and visit NursingFreedom.org this week for readers’ stories on mamas and little ones who sign to nurse.

Alicia is a breastfeeding mother to two girls whom her husband nicknamed “Munchkin” (2006) and “Sweets” (2009). She has breastfed them both while working full-time as a bench scientist in immunology. She writes about breastfeeding at Lactation Narration, and she is particularly interested in extended breastfeeding, tandem nursing, pumping at work, nursing in public, the science of lactation, and breastfeeding advocacy.

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