Your baby is going to understand and want to communicate ideas and requests with you a whole lot earlier than they’ll actually be able to verbalize the words. The gap between when a baby and young toddler knows what they want but can’t effectively communicate that to you is frustrating for everyone involved.
But a solution that parents have found effective (and has increased in popularity over the past couple of decades) is to teach them to talk with their hands first—with sign language. Parents.com explains why teaching sign language to babies is so helpful:
Using sign language with your baby gives you a peek into his thoughts, which helps cement your bond, says Michelle Macias, M.D., chair of the section on developmental and behavioural pediatrics for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Signing may also cut down on the frustration (and tantrums) caused by your child’s inability to convey his needs. And it might even make your kid smarter. Studies have found that babies who were taught to sign had a larger vocabulary at 12 months than those who weren’t.
How—and when—to get started
You can start using signs with your baby as early as you’d like. Realistically, though, the AAP says trends show that if you start signing with your baby around 6-7 months old, they’ll begin using them on their own around 8-9 months old. To teach the signs effectively, use them on a regular, daily basis. Showing them the sign one time is unlikely to be enough for the lesson to stick. Repetition is key.
There are loads of books, websites and YouTube tutorials to get you started with the basic signs you’ll want to teach your baby. BabySignLanguage.com has a printable sign language chart that you can put up on your refrigerator to help reinforce them and remind you to use them regularly. But as an introduction to a new sign, I find it helpful to first watch someone use it. This is a great quick video with a few of the signs my husband and I found most helpful to start with when our son was a baby:
It’s about seven minutes long and she teaches viewers a few solid starter signs, including “more,” “all done,” “milk,” “bed” and “wait.” As you continue adding words to your sign language repertoire, there are lots of other tutorials you can search on YouTube if there is a specific word you want to learn.
Which words should you focus on?
There’s no reason to pressure yourself to learn sign language for everything. It might be fun to teach them the difference between the sign for “red” and the sign for “green,” but to get the most out of the process, the AAP recommends starting with words that are “the most meaningful or serve to describe the things your baby most often sees, does or wants.”
To get you started, they compiled this list of words and phrases that babies might most want to communicate: aeroplane, baby, ball, bird, blanket, book, cat, cup, cold, daddy, diaper, dog, done, drink, eat, go, good night, happy, help, hot, hurt, I love you, milk, mummy, more, nap, no, outside, please, sit, sleep, star, thank you, up, water.
But don’t forget to keep speaking
Signing key words and concepts to your baby isn’t a substitute for verbal language—you should always be saying the word and signing it at the same time to reinforce its meaning. The AAP says that “as long as signing does not take the place of speaking, it won’t get in the way of your baby’s learning to talk with her words as well as her hands.”
And remember, too, to share key signs with your baby’s other caregivers or loved ones so they can still communicate and be understood when you’re not with them.
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