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Excerpts summarized from the My Smart Hands™ Corporate website

1.) What is baby sign language?

Baby sign language is a tool of communication that you can give to your preverbal baby. Babies begin to gesture at a fairly early age; putting their hands in the air to be picked up, waving goodbye, pointing at objects they want, etc. They quickly learn that these movements will elicit a reaction from his/her parents. Taking that natural gesturing to the next level, parents have started to teach their children specific signs that they can use to communicate their needs. Most people use signs taken from a real sign language, such as ASL in North America. By using ASL signs with babies, you are not teaching them the actual language (grammar, sentence structure, etc), you are simply using the exact sign for the exact English word.

2. When should I begin teaching my baby sign language?

You can start to teach your baby anytime you’d like. Most experts in the field once suggested waiting until around six months of age. But that is more of a suggestion for the parents’ sake than the baby’s. Generally babies don’t start signing back until 6-11 months of age. Some do start signing sooner, but they are rarer cases. If a parent starts signing at 2 months, and the baby doesn’t start signing back until 6 months, that is four months of signing with no reward back. Some parents will simply give up if it doesn’t work within weeks or a couple months. However, if a parent starts signing when their child is 6 months old, and the baby signs back within a month, then they feel more rewarded and continue to sign with their child. Basically, you can start anytime you feel motivated to. However, the key is to be consistent, and to not give up. I have never seen a child whose parents were consistent in his/her signing not sign back. Parents who don’t have success usually have given up too soon.

3. What are some of the advantages of teaching my child sign language?

The main advantage that appeals to everyone, is it lessens the frustration that your baby will experience because they are able to communicate their needs to you. This will obviously lead to less frustration on the parents’ part as well, by not having to play a guessing game with their baby.

There are other benefits to signing with babies. Generally, the first words babies tend to speak are they words they already know the sign for. This is partly because we repeat those words more than other words, as we are reinforcing the sign. For example, when you read a book, you may say a word once or maybe twice if you ask the child to point to the picture of the word. However, when you are signing with your child, you may repeat the same word 5 or 6 times. You may say something like, “Bear – do you see the bear? Do you know the sign for ‘bear’? This is the sign for ‘bear’. Can you make the sign for ‘bear’? Let me help you make the sign for ‘bear’.” In this example, you’ve said the word ‘bear’ six times while you are trying to teach the sign.

Another advantage is that signing babies tend to have a higher self-esteem 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.

4. Does Baby Sign Language hurt speech development?

I get this question often, it is probably the most common concern that people have surrounding signing with children. 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. Many times, we 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.

I’ve always heard the story that someone has a friend of a friend whose child was signed to and they didn’t talk until they were 2. But the reality is that child wouldn’t have talked until they were two anyway. The one thing does not equal the other. I have a colleague who has two boys and they both didn’t talk until they were two. She said she wished she knew about signing when her boys were young because it would have reduced a lot of frustration in her household.

Imagine, you have two children and they both don’t talk until they are two. You sign with the first child and not with the second. The first child is able to easily communicate with you and use 50 plus words easily, all while building more and more vocabulary until the age of two. The second child is only able to use pointing and sounds to let you know what he wants. When both children start talking at two, who did you think would have the larger vocabulary? Obviously the child who was signed to because he’s used language in a more advanced way through his two years of life. Plus the adults around him are probably talking to him in more advanced sentences than the second child because we know that the child comprehends what we are saying. Parents should have zero concern that signing would have any hindrance in their child’s language development.

5. Are there tips to help my baby to pick up baby sign language faster?

The most important thing for parents to do to help their child pick up signs faster, is to be consistent in their signing. It is more important for parents to sign a couple of words each and every time they say those words, than to sign 30 words once in a while. I always tell parents to start with a few signs that they are comfortable with and use on a regular basis, such as the word ‘milk’. Every single time you say the word ‘milk’, make the sign. The baby will pick this sign up faster than if you only sign it every few times you say the word. You can sign as many words as you want, and introduce as many as you’d like, just be sure to be consistent.

It is also important to keep in mind that all babies are different, some are going to pick it up faster than others. I started signing with my daughter when she was 4 months old, but she didn’t start signing back until 9.5 months. However, I’ve had parents in my class who started signing with their baby at 6 months, and the next week they started signing back. Others have not signed back until 11 or 12 months.

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