As any parent or childcare professional knows, communicating with babies isn’t always easy. Although youngsters often have a clear idea of what they want, they can struggle to express themselves, and this often leads to tears and tantrums. To help bridge the communication gap, a rising number of families are using basic versions of sign language.
After all, gestures are a normal part of communication. Even when people develop the ability to talk, they still rely heavily on body language to convey a whole range of messages. Most kids naturally pick up gestures like waving goodbye and they do this long before they are able to say the words.
It has been suggested that encouraging babies to sign can help to kickstart the language process and it can stimulate their intellectual development. In addition, advocates say it can help to strengthen the parent-child bond and decrease tantrums, especially during the dreaded ‘terrible twos’.
There is an intuitive appeal about teaching babies basic signs, and research has provided support for the idea. For example, while working at Alaska Pacific University, the American Sign Language and early child development researcher Dr Joseph Garcia found that, even at six to eight months of age, babies of deaf parents were using sign language to communicate ideas such as ‘milk’ and ‘more’. By nine months, he suggested, they had substantial sign vocabularies.
Dr Garcia was surprised by this, as most children don’t start saying their first words until around 12 months of age and they still have a small vocabulary at two years old.
Some people worry that baby signing may inhibit the development of spoken language. However, studies suggest this isn’t the case. Experts have found that when used alongside speech, signing can actually help babies to develop a broader vocabulary. Also, a Californian study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health suggested that children who had been encouraged to use a signing system during their second year of life had IQs that were on average 12 points higher than youngsters who had not signed.
Getting to grips with the basics
If you think that you and your tot could benefit from signing, it’s important to bear a few basic principles in mind. For example, there’s no point in overloading your youngster with a host of different signs. It’s far more effective to begin with a small number of gestures.
Also, you should always say the words that accompany the signs out loud. Never sign in silence. It’s crucial that your baby associates the gesture with the word. In addition, it’s helpful to speak slowly but naturally and try to stick to one sign per sentence to avoid confusion.
Meanwhile, don’t expect your baby’s signing attempts to be perfect. To encourage youngsters to sign, you’ll need to accept even approximate imitations of the gestures you show. Patience is a must as well, and always be generous with your praise.
If you want to get fully clued up on baby signing, it can pay off to invest in books or DVDs, or even to go to special classes. However, it’s possible to get plenty of signing ideas online that you can test out with your baby.
For example, a simple gesture for ‘more’ is to bring your thumb and fingers together on each hand and then to move your hands together, tapping your fingers twice. Another useful action that works well for ‘all gone’ is to open up your hands with your palms facing outwards towards your youngster.
To sign ‘sleep’, try opening your hand with you palm facing towards your face and slowly move it down, bringing your fingers and thumb together as you reach your chin. Make sure that you close your eyes as you do this.
A fourth useful sign, this time for ‘eat’ or ‘food’, involves bringing your fingers and thumb together and moving hand towards your mouth.
You might be surprised by how quickly your baby picks up signs like these, and the process of learning such gestures could help to strengthen your bond and make your interactions more rewarding.
Author bio: Liz Fitzpatrick is a professional childcare blogger and mother of three. She uses websites such as Wellfield International Au Pair & Nanny Agency to research childcare options and ideas.