Baby Sign Language and Speech Therapy

Ashley Signing to Benjamin MainOne of the most common challenges I’ve faced since becoming a mom to Benjamin last October is trying to determine what he wants.

Is that an angry cry or a hungry cry? Is he cranky because he needs a nap or is he teething? Does he want more food, or is he done? You get the picture.

I imagine it will get a little easier as he becomes more verbal over the next few years, but until then, what’s a mom (or dad) to do?

What is baby sign language?

Enter baby sign language, a relatively new phenomenon, gaining mainstream popularity in the past three decades.

However, William Dwight Whitney, an American Linguist and Yale professor, first recognized the opportunities presented through sign language in the 1800s. He noticed that babies in households with hearing-impaired parents as young as six months old were communicating by signing with their parents.

Jenna Davis, a Speech Language Pathologist at Children’s Medical Center, says baby sign language can encourage speech development, increase communication and reduce frustration for both you and your child. But how does baby sign language work?

When to start baby sign language

Ashley Signing to Benjamin

Ashley teaches baby Benjamin the sign for “more.”

Though most children may not have the motor skills and coordination to sign back until they’re about eight to 10 months old, Davis says parents can start incorporating simple signs in their daily routines as early as they’d like.

She recommends starting with about five signs related to family members (mom, dad, brother, sister, etc.), food (more, all done, milk, eat, etc.) and/or activities (play, toy, sleep, etc.). Once you get comfortable, here are 21 words and signs to know – baby sign language basics, if you will.

As you speak words throughout the day, make the sign with your hands at the same time so that your child will learn to associate the sign with the word and begin to understand the context of each word.

Another good time to teach baby sign language is during playtime. With your child in your lap, hold their hands and help them make various signs as you say each word. Be patient. Your child may begin to understand the signs before they can actually perform them, so be consistent and have fun!

Baby sign language is not just for babies

Baby sign language can not only empower babies to communicate early, it can help increase self-esteem and build language skills in older children who may be non-verbal.

As a therapist, Davis says the use of sign language has helped decrease problematic behaviors, such as tantrums, in patients, as well as provided others with a way to communicate their basic wants or needs.

Do you and your child use baby sign language? What tips do you have for parents (like me) who are just starting the process?

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One Response to Baby Sign Language and Speech Therapy

  1. Jennifer June 30, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    Ashley, this is a wonderful article and it’s so great to inform parents about baby sign language as a communication option early on! My M.S. is in Speech-Language Pathology and I used baby sign language with my daughter for a couple of years until she was so verbal we no longer needed it.

    You mentioned these points above, but just to add emphasis to the most important aspects, my overall advice to anyone beginning baby sign language is:

    1) Be consistent in using the sign and saying the word at the same time.

    2) Use the signs in context so the baby makes the connection between each sign and its meaning in a real situation.

    3) Be patient – the signs will come one by one.

    One specific tip I always give people starting the process is to really pay attention to your baby’s ATTEMPTS at first. The first signs are usually approximations. The very first sign my daughter made was at about 8 1/2 months old. She attempted the sign for “more” by moving one arm toward the other just slightly between spoonfuls of food.

    When you catch these initial tries it’s the perfect time to acknowledge and reinforce your baby’s efforts by getting excited, repeating the sign yourself while saying the word aloud, and of course responding by quickly giving him more food (if that’s the situation).

    Once the baby is sure that what he tried is on the right track, the movement gets more precise over the next few days. But some signs still remain approximations and that’s ok – as long as you recognize the attempts and you two are understanding each other, the limited motor skills won’t get in the way. The communication is taking place, and that’s the most important thing.

    Using baby sign language with my daughter was one of the best things I did for our relationship – it helped immensely with understanding her needs and quickly developed her overall communicative abilities. But most of all it helped me feel more in tune with her. By 10 months she would rock back and forth (our own baby sign for “music”) and make the sign for “more” and I would know immediately that she wanted me to turn the CD player back on when it stopped. It was awesome.

    Best of luck using baby signs with your son – it is a very wise decision and it sounds like you’re off to a great start! :)

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