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Baby Signs: Why, When, and How to Start


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If you’re a parent of a baby or toddler, you’ve probably heard the term “baby signs” or baby signing and wondered what it’s all about. Is it just for deaf children or can hearing children benefit as well? How and when do I start teaching signs? As a therapist who worked in early intervention (ages birth-3) for several years, I can answer all of those questions!


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Benefits of teaching baby signs

Baby signing allows children to speak before the verbal speech:

Babies and toddlers can understand much more than they will express. Receptive language skills (what they will understand) usually develop before expressive language skills (what they will say). Learning to coordinate your tongue and teeth to supply words may be a tricky skill and most babies won’t be ready to do that until around 12 months. However, gestures or signs are often produced much earlier (around 7-9 months). So a baby who can sign is going to be ready to communicate much before those.

babies who use only words to speak.

Baby signs can bridge a niche in communication: While working in early intervention, I saw tons of “late-talkers”. I might start by introducing some simple signs to assist them to understand the way to communicate. Baby signs were an honest start line for these kiddos and easier than words. Eventually, these kids would say the word with the sign then drop the sign altogether and just use the word. In my experience, baby signs didn’t keep kids from talking. It helped them bridge a niche so that they might understand how communication works.

Earlier communication helps reduce tantrums

Once a toddler can communicate their wants and wishes, their frustration decreases. Babies and toddlers will get to some extent where they know exactly what they need but don’t skills to speak their wants and wishes. this will sometimes end in a meltdown. If they’re given early communication tools, like baby signs, this greatly decreases tantrums and meltdowns.

When to show baby signs

Never too early or too late to start

Babies are developmentally able to start having their parents sign to them after 4 months old. Most won’t have the fine motor skills required to sign back until around 7-9 months aged when coordination is best. That doesn’t mean you can’t start signing early on! Babies are like sponges and can understand the meaning of a symbol long before they will imitate it. If you’ve got a toddler that’s a late-talker, you’ll start thereupon age also.

The important thing is to only start.

I started signing with my son when he was around 8 months old. At 9 months he signed his first sign (all done). By 14 months he had around 50 signs. Now, at age two, he mainly uses words. But every once in a while when he thinks we’re not listening or he wants to stress something, he will sign it and say it!

What signs to start teaching

The most important thing to recollect is to show baby signs that are functional and motivating. it’d be fun to show your baby the sign for “platypus” but how often will they use it? Unless they need a favourite stuffed animal that happens to be a platypus, I might instead specialise in signs that help them to speak wants and wishes.

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More–this is my favourite one to start with and may be used with food, toys, or interactive games like tickling
Help–when kids learn this sign, it can prevent tons of meltdowns!
All done–great for transitions like putting toys away or ending dinner time
Routines–eat, drink, change, bath, or sleep are fantastic signs for routines
Favourite Foods–milk, cookie, and cracker are often very motivating for a baby or toddler to find out if it means they get that food item once they sign it!
Toys–ball, baby doll, or car are popular ones with kiddos
Favourite Animals–if you’ve got a pet (i.e. dog, cat, etc.), definitely consider teaching these signs. Or if they love a book with livestock, that’s an interesting thanks to teaching animal signs also.

How to teach baby signs

Begin with just a couple of signs.

It is often overwhelming to desire you’ve got to start out signing to label everything around you. Start with a couple of basic ones like more, milk, and everyone has done and use them throughout the day in several contexts. As your child learns those, gradually add in some more throughout your day to day routines.

Teach by doing fork overhand.

When a toddler is first learning a symbol you’ll need to help them to try to to it by putting their hands within the right position.

Show sign and have them imitate

the subsequent step after fork over hand teaching is to point out them the sign and have them imitate. Always confirm to pair the sign with the vocable so that they learn both the sign and therefore the word!

Give a verbal cue.

Once they will imitate the sign, try just saying the word to ascertain if they’re going to sign it. for instance, if they need more cheese, you’ll prompt them, “You can show me ‘more’.”


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