One of the difficulties we face as parents is trying to guess what our babies want when they cry. Babies don’t simply burst into tears without a reason; they want to tell us something but aren’t yet able to do so. This inability to effectively communicate their needs and wants can cause stress on both the baby and the parents. The most effective way I found to communicate with my infant daughter was baby sign language – a technique that calls for making simple hand signs and/or gestures to convey a desire.
At an early age, babies grasp the idea that not all communication is verbal. Crying, smiling, laughing, waving and pointing are all non-verbal forms of communication that young children master before they learn to speak, and baby sign language simply introduces more non-verbal signs that babies can use. Children can learn the meanings of simple hand signs from caregivers as early as six months of age but may take several weeks or months to sign back. As parents, we must remember to be patient and to give our children the time they need to process this new form of communication, and, if we want results, we must be rigorous and consistent in our teachings.
Once you’ve decided that you want to introduce baby sign language in your home, decide which words you’d like to teach first. Start very slow – with only two to five signs – and repeat the sign every time you say the word. Don’t worry if you are not using “official” American Sign Language (ASL) signs with your child, it is more important to be consistent with the signs that you do use as it will take time for your child to associate the sign with its meaning. My husband and I started with just two signs: we would shake our hands to say, “All done” and we would tap one palm with the opposing index finger to say, “More.”
We used these two signs constantly throughout the day, as often as we could – during playtime, mealtime, and bath time. It took almost two months for our daughter to attempt to sign back. As soon as your child mimics your hand gestures, show them that you understand and react enthusiastically to their sign. My daughter quickly learned that she could have as many blueberries as she wanted, as long as she continued to sign for more. Once your child has mastered their first set of signs, you can expand their vocabulary by adding more. The next signs we introduced were “milk,” “food” and “sleep,” which my daughter picked up quicker than the first two signs.
Make sure to share your baby’s signs with all family members and caregivers and have them participate as much as possible. Baby sign language can be lots of fun for older siblings, so be sure to include them. The more your child sees the signs being used, the quicker they will grasp their meaning. Additionally, once your child starts signing, you don’t want them to grow frustrated if their signs aren’t understood.
I was impressed at how adept my daughter became at signing once she understood what she had to. I would catch her sometimes staring at her fingers, trying to make them move the way mine did. Being able to tell us what she needed led to a lot less crying in our house. It wasn’t easy – we continued signing for months for our daughter before we saw any progress. It can be frustrating when we don’t see the results we expect – I know too many people who gave up after only a few days without any acknowledgment on their baby’s part – but keep it up. It’ll be worth it in the long run.