What is Baby Sign Language?

Many parents, both new and seasoned, come up against challenges in their daily living.  Besides constantly feeling exhausted, many parents have anxiety.  Said anxiety results from an inability to discern their infants’ cries, difficulty bonding with their new bundles of joy, as well as social isolation during their babies’ first few months of life.  Now, lets be honest, not all of these anxiety-provoking stressors of parenthood are avoidable; however, they can be reduced exponentially by lessening your baby’s frustration.  Some of you might be thinking, “How on earth can an infant who has only been around for months, even days, be so frustrated?”  

Think about how often your baby cries.
Although you would do anything to sooth your little one, there are still times when he/she is simply inconsolable and you feel like breaking down and crying yourself!  It’s a vicious cycle, because your tears certainly won’t help to sooth your baby’s tears.

Lets take a step back and consider why it is that your baby is crying in the first place.
Of course your baby cries to demonstrate physical discomfort or emotional distress, as well as under/overstimulation, but the most common reason for your baby’s tears is his/her desire to communicate.  Your baby is telling you that he/she is hungry, tired or even that it’s time for a diaper change.  Crying is a natural method of basic communication that babies are born ready to use.  The problem with this behavior, even though it is in fact a natural tool for communication, is that it is a stressor for both you and your baby!  

I challenge you to think outside of the box in order to resolve the underlying problem as opposed to putting a bandage on the symptom, that of crying.  Your baby’s cries can be incredibly difficult to discern, and doing so doesn’t even diminish the anxiety that naturally results from those initial tears.  Unless you fulfill your baby’s needs right away, you risk that he/she will become frustrated!  I imagine that you’d feel the same way if your sole method of communication were tears.  

It’s time to raise your baby without excessive tears [as I think it would be a bit of an overreach stating that you can eliminate crying altogether] by teaching him/her to communicate via baby sign.  

Baby sign, aka baby sign language, is a strategy that teaches babies how to communicate before they are anatomically and physiologically ready to speak.  In order to verbalize, babies need to develop their fine motor skills in their articulators (i.e. tongue, lips, velum, vocal tract, larynx and vocal cords) which takes up to a year, whereas they have the gross motor skills, hand eye coordination and cognitive memory capacity for language required to communicate using basic signs and gestures as of about 6 months of age.
Research has demonstrated that babies who are consistently exposed to sign by 6 months of age can begin using signs to effectively communicate by 8 to 9 months old.1 & 2  

Here’s a tip for those of you interested in replacing your baby’s tears with signs: Start with the most general sign possible, such as the signs for GIVE ME or MORE, which can be used to request any item!  

Of course as fluent English speakers we are aware that the concept of more indicates a supplement to that which you already have, but that is neither here nor there for a baby who is just beginning to sign.  The point is to teach your baby functional communication rather than fluent sign, as most of you are likely not fluent in any of the deaf sign languages.  By teaching your baby a more general sign, he/she will have the opportunity to use it more often in various contexts to request innumerable items.  Therefore, your baby will have more opportunities to use the sign, or attempt to use the sign, or even just see the sign while he/she is first being introduced to signing.  

While you’re teaching your baby GIVE ME or MORE you must model the sign for your baby and then help him/her to execute it.  Most importantly, make sure to consistently reward your baby for using the sign with the item that he/she desires.  Every time your baby makes a communicative attempt with gestures (or sounds as spoken language is developing), so long as you deem the request to be reasonable, his/her need or desire should be filled.  It’s that simple!  

The reward of receiving what it is that your baby wants is enough to reinforce the behavior of communicating with signs.  

With time and development, your baby will start using these general signs independently.  Thereafter, you can introduce more specific signs, starting with around 3-5 signs, as your baby will already understand how to communicate manually with his/her hands.

To have the best results signing with your baby, you must be consistent and very repetitive, making sure to capitalize on every teaching opportunity that arises.  

This might seem demanding at first.  But remember, taking the extra time in your daily routine to habituate your little one to signing is far better than those uncomfortable stares on the street while your child tantrums for a snack and you pull out every toy, book and blanket one by one hoping to temper the shrieks and shrills.  The extra effort you put forth teaching your baby to sign will end up being a huge time saver.

“Dr. Joseph Garcia”. Stratton/Kehl Publications, Inc. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
Collingwood, J. (2016). Teaching Your Baby Sign Language Can Benefit Both of You. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 21, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/teaching-your-baby-sign-language-can-benefit-both-of-you/

Michelle Lerner, M.S., CCC-SLP / TSSLD – Bilingual Extension Founder of Baby Says More™

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