Teaching Baby to sign: phase 1! (0 to 8 months)

If you have an infant, you’ve probably read somewhere that sign language can be helpful in laying a foundation for communication skills. This is true! However, most guidance on this topic focuses on WHAT to teach, not how to teach. This can be confusing for parents because even if you learn, for example the sign for “drink”, you’re likely not sure what to do to otherwise get your baby to sign, and of course eventually vocalize! I’m here to help.

It is true that sign language can be extremely helpful in establishing early communication skills and can help vocalizations develop. Sign language is also an extremely easy technology – you can learn some simple gestures and incorporate them into daily routines with extraordinarily little effort. In fact, sign language is commonly used with children with disabilities to support development of vocal speech, and I’ve published several peer reviewed articles on this topic.

Before we get into the specifics on how to teach your baby to sign, let me differentiate between sign language as a culture, communication form and community vs. sign language as simple gestures that are used before an individual can vocally communicate. We will be discussing the latter. We’re not trying to establish fluent signers in our babies – we’re simply trying to give them a behavior they can engage in to influence their environment before they have control over their voice. Because of this important distinction, I hesitated to include the words “sign language” in this blog, but chose to do so because it’s most commonly discussed this way. But for the sake of your understanding, think of what you’re doing as simply using hand movements or gestures that help a baby tell you what they want.

To begin, you can start modeling the use of signs from day 1 of your child’s life on earth! This blog will be focused on young babies, ages birth to 8 months. Obviously your baby at this age will be too young to move their hands and fully sign, but there are many things you can do at this age to lay a strong foundation for language. In part 2 of this blog, I’ll talk about babies older than 8 months and specific teaching strategies that are different when your child is older.

The process for practicing signs and communication in young babies is simple:

  1. First, choose a few signs for objects that are common in your baby’s environment and preferably interesting to them. Examples include: milk, bottle, pacifier, a favorite toy, a family pet, mama, and dada.
  2. Learn the signs – you can do so through any sign language website (just google sign language!) or you can simply purchase a basic book of common baby signs. Alternatively – you can even make up your own signs! The effectiveness of this procedure is not dependent on the actual sign, it depends on the teaching procedure you use to teach the sign. Pick gestures that are easy for you to remember and to do when you’re juggling an infant, bottle, toy, maybe another kid, (and likely a million other things!).
    1. On this note, I have a few recommendations: 1) avoid general signs like “more,” “please,” and “thank you.” These signs can refer to many objects so you won’t get the opportunity to teach separate items if you use them. 2) Choose signs that look different from one another (i.e., they don’t “rhyme”). For example – the sign for “ball” and “square” sort of look alike. Whereas the sign for “ball” and “mama” look very different.
  3. Once you’ve chosen the signs, it’s helpful to understand the behavioral mechanisms behind this procedure. The effectiveness of using signs at this age depends on the process of pairing. Up until 8 months or so, your baby won’t have the motor ability to do any of these signs and they certainly won’t have the vocal skills to start having control over anything they say. So, you’re pairing the sign with the item and you’re pairing the vocal word with the item and the sign. All of this comes together to associate different things with one another, providing a foundation for what will soon become vocal speech!
  4. Alright, so you’ve got objects, you’ve got the gestures/signs. Now what do you do? When delivering the item (e.g., giving milk), model the sign in view for your baby and say the name of the item. For example: As you feed your baby a bottle of milk, make the sign and then say “Milk, milk, milk!”
  5.  I recommend saying the name of the item at least 3 times and doing so without any extra words (e.g., you want the milk, it’s so good, have some milk). This is a case where less is better. Saying the name of the item will help establish that the object in your possession has a name and that name is ___ (Milk).
  6. Remember, you’re not requiring your baby to do anything at this time. You’re simply trying to associate the vocal word and the sign with the item.
  7. Continue modeling the sign and saying it’s name throughout your day any time you can! There are no rules on the amount you have to do this – you can practice as little or as much as you wish!
    1. When my son was a baby, I had “signing sessions” where I would intentionally incorporate what I describe above. I chose to do this because I like structure and having “signing sessions” helped me to know that I was in fact remembering to do it! We are all sleep deprived during this stage after all, so remembering to do something (like shower) isn’t easy!  You don’t have to separate time and have signing sessions unless you want to! You can easily just incorporate the above strategy into your day as you encounter the objects and as it makes sense to do so.  Even one opportunity per day is something and can have an effect!
  8. You can target 3 or so signs per week and add as you go along or simply have a short list of interests for those first months and repeat the process for those same items throughout your day. Some babies become very interested in A LOT of things, whereas other babies stick to a handful of core interests. There’s no right or wrong here – there is a lot of flexibility in the number of signs you choose to incorporate into your day.

You can continue using this procedure until your baby reaches a point where they can benefit from prompts. I recommend 8 months at the earliest, but most babies will likely be most successful a little later than that – closer to 9 or 10 months. In part 2 of this blog post, I’ll dive in to making the transition from simply pairing to actively prompting (teaching) your child to use the sign and then in part 3 of this blog, I’ll help you transition to supporting them in vocalizations. It’s a really fun process and can help you establish a great foundation for language through specific and committed activities throughout your day!

Happy signing!

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