incredible infant

headline 2011

Using Infant Sign Language
to Boost Development

infant sign language 3
Teaching your infant sign language is an easy way to stimulate your baby's mind and broaden his ability to share about the world around him. That communication translates into fewer tantrums and more smiles.

At 11-months-old, my youngest, Elena, was successfully ruining every family meal. Her screams and tantrums were frustrating and disruptive to a normally enjoyable family tradition: dinner.

It was time for action. Time for teaching.

We had successfully used infant sign language with Lauren, but time had slipped away with us and we just hadn't gotten around to teaching Elena. She was nearly one and didn't know how to "talk" except through screaming and pointing.

Just as before, we kept it simple. We started with five basic signs (All Done!, More, Please, Thank-you, and Drink).

It worked like magic (as we knew it would!). Rather than screams, our empowered one-year-old was sharing her desires, and getting them met.

Using infant sign language starts an important parenting precedent. In this family, screaming and fits of rage don't get you things. Calmly, and politely asking (whether with lips or fingers) is how we share (and possibly receive) our desires.

"Learning to Sign" Helps
in "Learning to Speak"

infant sign language 1
My Elena shares
she's "all done"
infant sign language 2
My Elena says "please"
by rubbing her tummy
Infant sign language is not just for deaf children. Studies have shown that teaching sign language to hearing babies can actually enhance their language and learning development.

Just as crawling encourages your baby to walk by having her taste movement, signing encourages your baby to talk by having her taste communication.

When dealing with motor skills, the large movements (crawling, grabbing), are developed before the fine motor skills (tongue and lip movements). You baby's mind will be comprehending and understanding at a rate that is too fast for his fine motor skills to catch up!

He can't coordinate the tongue and mouth muscles to say he's thirsty, but he can coordinate his finger to poke inside his mouth to sign "Drink".

Susan Goodwyn, one of the original advocates of baby signing, claims that "when babies are using signs, they pay more attention to what's going around them in terms of language. They're stimulating the language portion of the brain."

Goodwyn and her fellow signing-expert, Linda Acredolo, conducted a study in 1996 that found that babies taught to sign at 11 months old tested 11 months ahead of other babies in terns of vocabulary and linguistic ability by the age of three. The same study showed that at age 8, signing babies scored higher on IQ tests than babies who were not taught to sign.

Even though this study is not without controversy, it does indicate there are benefits to closely interacting with your baby when teaching signs. Just signing a few words can make a big difference. My Elena is proof of that.

Heather's Update!

I'm proud to say that my Elena is now as gabby as ever as she moves toward her 4th birthday in March (did I really just type that? sheesh!). So I've moved on to a new student. Isabella is a year old and is hard at work mastering her first few signs.

So far we've got "all done" down pat - so well, in fact that she does it even when not "done" in order to cue excited squeals and happy smiles from her older sisters. And she nearly broke a finger signing "more" after she finished her first birthday cupcake!

Next on my list of signs-to-work on is "drink" and "please". (yes, I'm a little lax on the polite thing with #3!) Her little chubby fingers are in for a workout!

Infant Sign Language is So Easy...
Even a Caveman Can Do It

{For my Non-American Visitors: This is a tongue-in-cheek reference to a
popular American Geico Insurance commercial}

Teaching your infant sign language is as simple as repeating the word and the physical action consistently, until he makes some effort to copy it. Rewarding and repeating the gestures and words reinforces concepts and gestures until it becomes 2nd nature.

What signs do you use? That's up to you! Most baby signing classes and resources use American Sign Language (ASL) (see Resources below for help). However, you can also make up your own signs.

What specific signs you use really aren't important - as long as you and your baby both understand them. For example, we trained both our children to sign "All Done" by raising both hands in the air. The correct ASL sign is to shake your hands in front of you at the same time.

Elena and I aren't in a competition. There isn't a test at age 2 to determine if she's using the correct hand gestures. The only goal is to communicate. If it's easiest for you to use established ASL signs, use those! If your baby uses his own specific gesture for something, use that!


When Should You Start Signing?

Many parents start teaching sign language to their infants at around 6-8 months (although, like I mentioned above, we waited until almost a year). Of course, you can start teaching infants as early as at birth!

The key is patience. If you're prone to impatience, wait until your baby is closer to a year old. You'll more likely to see the fruit from your teaching sooner. You never want to show impatience or frustration with your baby if he isn't "getting it". He will sense that frustration. Stay calm, stay persistant, and eventually he'll pick up on it.

Sign Language for Babies:
Resources to Help

I spent some time browsing the web and looking through books to discover some high-quality resources for you to use in teaching your infant sign language.


Award Winning DVDs and Training Guides

If you've been thinking about teaching your baby to use sign language, now's a great time to get started. It's incredibly easy and just-so-useful. Signing Time is the award-winning, Grammy-nominated program that I recommend.

Discover Your Baby with Sign Language - Learn about Baby Signing Time


Helpful Signing Websites

Besides excellent DVDs that show you exactly how to teach your baby to sign, there are a few excellent websites that foster a community of family-signers and articles that go way beyond the scope of this beginner's article! Here are my two favorite sites for baby signing:
  • Babies and Sign Language

      Babies and Sign Language helps lessen frustration and tantrums by teaching your infant signs to clearly communicate specific thoughts, wants, and needs before speaking. Enhance baby's language, cognitive development, and IQ. Site features include: detailed baby signing information, tried-and-true tips, baby sign language articles, photos of babies using signs, and listings of baby sign language classes in your local area. I found her baby signing dictionary and glossary particularly helpful.
  • San Diego Baby Sign

      San Diego Baby Sign is an easy tie for "best baby signing site" in my opinion. It's incredibly user-friendly, with simple categories to flush out all our questions. The "Learning Timetable" was particularly helpful, and something I've not seen on other signing sites. The ability to understand what your baby is capable of signing, and what is too hard for her can save you some serious frustrations and headaches.
Both of these sites have a ton of good information, resources, and guides in your quest to help your baby communicate. You'll be so thrilled when your baby stops screaming and actually tells you (with his hands of course) what he wants!

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No matter which signs you use, the act of deliberating teaching your child specific words and actions will dramatically boost his learning and language development by stimulating the thinking portions of his growing brain.

Help your baby learn to communicate using gestures and signs. Not only will it jump-start those cognitive skills he needs for future speech, it will eliminate those scream-fests of frustration that fray the fabric of a peaceful home.

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