Why we did baby sign language (and how I’d suggest you do it differently)

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thought i'd leave you with something cute....

The back-story of how I ended up doing sign language with my son goes all the way back to a dirty warehouse in 1998. That’s when I first met Melissa “Echo” Greenlee, a Deaf Seattleite. We used to rock out in front of the speaker stacks together (what, you’ve never heard of a deaf raver?), and she taught me how to finger spell using the American manual alphabet.

When Echo first started teaching sign language to hearing infants back in 2002 through her company Visually Speaking, I got all excited. It makes perfect sense, right? Before babies can speak, they can sign. A friend did sign language with her baby in 2004, and I was amazed at how calm her son was at expressing his needs.

“More,” he’d sign, with no need for shouting and pointing.

I spent years biding my time, waiting for a moment when I’d have my own baby to do sign language with … and then last year, it was finally my turn.

Lemme tell you the story of how we did baby sign language, and what I did wrong.

I was perhaps a little over-eager: Andreas and I took baby sign language classes from Echo when Tavi was just three months old. Echo had warned us that we likely wouldn’t see any results until at least six months old, but we couldn’t help ourselves — she was leading an in-home workshop a block from our house, and we couldn’t wait to sign up.

For six weeks, we met in a living room to work on our signs with Tavi. We learned basics like “milk” and “more” and “all done.” We learned the signs for different foods (cheese, crackers, strawberries) and toilet stuff (diaper, poop, change), and animals (cat, dog, fish), and tons more. Most of the other kids were closer to a year old and walking, while Tavi could barely sit up. But it didn’t matter! We were signing!

When the course was over, Dre and I committed ourselves to using signs with Tavi. I would prop Tavi up on the bed while I folded laundry and talk to him about the color of each garment. Every time I nursed him, I would sign “milk” and “all done.” Dre would sign to him about music and dancing.

Months went by. Nothing happened.

My commitment waned. Dre kept signing, but I could only remember to do “more” when Tavi started eating. Tavi stared at me blankly. “More,” I’d sign. “More!”

And then, finally, at 10 months old it happened. Inspired by cupcake frosting, Tavi finally got the “more” sign:

GRATIFICATION! Of course, then once he got this word down, he used it. A LOT. He was like a junkie, emphatically signing “MORE MORE MORE” even as food was going into his mouth. Then “more” became his sign for “HEY, I NEED SOMETHING HERE.” It was his one word for everything. He would sign what I called “Sad More” when I changed his diaper.

Success! We had a “more” sign!

And then he started talking.

And I got even lazier.

And then Tavi didn’t get any other signs.

Sad trombone.

Learn from me: I totally recommend baby signing. Highly. It’s amazing to give your baby the tools to communicate when they don’t yet have words.

But I recommend not being over-eager like me. Wait until your baby is at least six months old (and possibly even more like eight months old). You’ll get results quicker, and hopefully won’t get all slacker-y like I did.

Comments on Why we did baby sign language (and how I’d suggest you do it differently)

  1. an interesting point also. Signs can me a warning for babies also, like a coping mechanism. I have a set of twins I have helped take care of since they were about 4 weeks old. The little boy (amazingly intelligent) he has always been freaked out by loud sounds. I’m talking anything from the coffee grinder to the doorbell. He loves to go to the local farm, knows all the animals names (sign and voiced word as close as a 1yo can get) the sound of the sheep baa or the cow mooing would make him physically shutter and cry his little heart out!! poor baby. I started telling them “its going to be noisy.” I would sign NOISY really big, with both hands. and then run the garbage disposal and end with a big “all done’ also in really big sign.
    in about a day he had picked up ‘noisy’ and the frantic crying was minimal. I have a fantastic video on my phone of him at the farm nose to nose with a big brown sheep and it baaaaaaahhhhh! and he didn’t cry or shutter or run away, he signed a great big NOISY! its one of those things that will be a victory of mine forever :o) problem solved!!

  2. I’m a deaf mama, and I totally agree with the “wait until about 5-6mo” and don’t expect anything until after 9mo. I did this with my daughter. I was pretty lazy about talking to her at all until around 5mo and she actually started, well, you know, behaving like a little person rather than a lump that had a 3 second attention span 🙂 She started signing milk at 9mo. Her vocabulary exploded after that though and her verbal vocabulary went at even more dizzying pace, she was highly verbal by 16mo.

    My biggest recommendation is the entire SigningTime series. it goes ABOVE and BEYOND what many, many sign dvds or series do. its two seasons of 12 or 13 20 min episodes per season. And bonus features on the discs. Many libraries have this series, so check there, and there are also clips on Youtube. We spent the hard cash on the series and do not regret it, going go use it for our second child who is currently turning 5mo 🙂

    The signing time series (and baby signing time series) has super catchy songs, actual real people (not freaking puppets) and good closeups of all the kids and adults signing.

    Yes, its hard for hearing parents to consistently use sign but it can really help kids during tantrums because their verbal skills deteriorate during emotional floods, and sometimes its easier to concentrate on your few signs to them than a long stream of words. I also use it a LOT with my daughter in busy or loud places, she seems to zoom right in on my signing and I can dole out the discipline better (and allow her to save face if i just wordlessly sign NO vs yell it 🙂

  3. As a person who knows sign language the data says that children with deaf parents have better communication then hearing parents, because they can voice themselves using sign language. I recommend it to all parents. But yes, they start using it around 6months. I’m going to bookmark you fun reading.

  4. I’m so thrilled that this is a thing now! My mama taught me some ASL basics when I was just a wee one (I’m in my twenties now) with this exact line of reasoning — with a pre- or barely-verbal kid, signing is easier than speaking.
    More than two decades on, I’m not quite as smooth with it as once I was, but what I remember has let me reach out to deaf people who I’ve encountered in two of my jobs (waitressing and secretary-ing). My mom was just looking to make her life easier, but it’s helped me connect with people in my adult life! I think that’s pretty cool. (Again, I’m far from fluent, but all the deaf people I’ve ever met have been very gracious about my efforts.) I think that nothing that helps people communicate is ever wasted.

  5. Okay, I’ll admit it: I don’t have children. I’ve just been checking out the site because I love what I’ve seen of the Offbeat Empire, and I have an interest in kids. So no, I’ve never tried to teach signs to my own child and if people feel that that makes me unqualified to comment here, I’ll understand. I just thought I’d comment because I’m a CODA and former Deaf school teaching assistant and I thought my opinion might be useful.

    I began signing at four months old. My sister began signing at a similar age. First signs were the classics — “more” and “milk” — and then we expanded from there. My sister started speaking at a “normal” age. I didn’t speak until I was about two or three years old, and then started using full sentences all at once. (Apparently, this is considered a sign of a smart kid, and happens with kids who don’t use sign language as well as with those who do. I never had behavioral or developmental problems and always did very well in school, ESPECIALLY in language arts. My sister, while also smart and good with languages, is more skilled in biological sciences and visual art.) So you see, a.) I don’t think you started signing too early at all; some kids CAN sign earlier than 6 months and even if they don’t, they’re still learning while they sit there like little lumps, b.) learning to sign doesn’t delay their speaking, and c.) even if their speaking is delayed, it’s not necessarily a problem. Just keep an eye on things. Different kids develop in different ways.

    Also, I agree with the STRONG RECOMMENDATION that everyone (in the United States) stick with ASL and not made-up baby sign programs. Even if you’re using simple one-word statements and/or have no intention of continuing to use sign language as your child gets older, it’s still to your child’s advantage to be using words from a real language as opposed to a pretend one.

  6. You can sign with one hand there are many people that lost a hand or have baby in their hands so they can only sign with one hand, I do it all the time if I’m carring something the person understands.

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