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Infant Sign Language 101

One of the coolest things I learned while I was earning my bachelor’s degree was the power of infant sign language. When I saw it in action, I knew I had to teach my baby to use signs. The infant classroom where I taught it was such a happy, cheerful, tear-free place, and it all centered around the use of sign language. Instead of having babies cry at us or throw a fit to tell us what they wanted, they simply TOLD us what they needed. It blew me away how quickly they caught on, how empowered they felt, and how easy it was for the teachers to care for the babies.

So, here’s what to do. Don’t worry, I’ll go over it in detail to help you understand, but then I’ll give you the quick start guide. As I’ve refreshed my memory on the signs to use, I’ve noticed a lack of information on HOW to teach signs to the babies. So, I thought I’d share how I learned to teach sign language to infants. Let me preface this lesson with a little warning: this is the intensive training for sign language. It’s quick, babies pick up on the signs rather quickly, and you should be aware of what your baby is doing. That being said, you’ll never be happier than the first time your baby signs sleep instead of throwing a gigantic fit when they are tired.

Step One. Sign, sign, sign! This is the modeling step. Use the signs you’d like your baby to use constantly. If you have an opportunity to sign, do it! If you’re reading this as a big-old preggo lady or the mother of a 2 week old, fantastic! You have a fabulous chance to teach your baby because you can start using signs with them from the beginning. Don’t expect them to turn around and sign by the time they’re a month old, but do expect it to be a lot easier when they get to be the age where they can control those cute, chubby hands of theirs.

Step Two. Help your baby do the sign. You’ve seen that frustrated face before, the one where they are trying so hard to figure out how to stick their tongue out at you while you raspberry away at them. They desperately want to get that tongue out of their mouth, but just don’t know how. The same thing can go for signing. Your child can be desperate to tell you they want more of that yummy food, but they just can’t figure out how to put their hands together to say it. However, if you help them to sign “more”, their muscles start to learn what that feels like and they’re able to figure it out more quickly.

Step Three. Deliver the goods immediately. If you give your child the sign for eat, for goodness sakes, give them something to eat then and there! They have to learn to associate these signs with what they’re meant for. So, if you give the sign for eat, then go change their diaper before you take them to get some food, they’re going to associate the sign for eat with changing their diaper. Makes sense, right? Don’t put anything between the sign and the action or idea it represents.

This video is an example of the first three steps. This is our 2nd day of learning more. The second time around, she starts moving her hands and you can see I pause to see if she’s going to try the sign on her own.

Step Four. Reinforce all proximations. That’s behaviorist speak for, if it looks anything like the sign you’re looking for, give them what they asked for. If you’re working on the sign for “more” and your baby claps their hands together, give them more. If they’re particularly having a difficult time with the sign, and they even slightly move their hands towards making the sign, give them what they ask for. Continue to reinforce all the baby steps as they get better and better. Although this can take time, they’ll figure it out eventually and perfect the sign. Let me stop to give you fair warning here: this is the piece that requires you to actually pay attention to what your little one is doing. Sometimes they can be signing something long before you realize what it is they’re doing…it just isn’t the perfect form of the sign. So, if your baby is sitting in their Exersaucer flailing their arms back and forth crying, what does it resemble? Look closely….think maybe they’re trying to tell you they’re all done? Just watch their hands a bit more closely once you’ve started sign language training.

This video is an example of the following day (day 3 of training) when I am reinforcing proximations of “more”. As you can see, she’s not touching her hands together in front of her, but touches her hands together only moving one hand to the other. I stress again, THIS IS THE VERY NEXT DAY!

Step Five. Work on generalizing the sign. So, the sign for more is most easily started at the dinner table. Kids love food, so they naturally want to ask for more. Once they have it down at the dinner table, then start moving the sign to other parts of their day. When they giggle like crazy at your tickles, get your baby to ask you for more. Remember, help them to make the sign!!

Step Six. Make them sign BEFORE you give them the goods, every time!! This is the most intense part of the process. Most people would say just sign and show them how to do it and they’ll learn to do them signs just like they learn to talk, or that you can work on it at some times and not others. Both are true. However, they’re going to zip through learning the signs if you add this step. This is the finished product of teaching signs. If your baby is all done with something, help their little hands say “all done” before you pick them up, take their food away, etc. and DO IT EVERY TIME. If they learn they can’t have more unless they sign it, they’re much more likely to actually start using the sign. Once they have the sign down and there is no question about if they know it or not, then you can back off.

 Quick Start Guide to Teaching Signs

(Example given for teaching “more”.)

1. Sit down with your baby at meal time. Give them their first bite.

2. Load the spoon with the second bite. When baby’s mouth is empty, ask the baby, “Do you want more?” and model the sign.

3. Wait a few seconds (unless this is your first or second time trying it) to see if they make any sort of proximation of the sign “more”. If they don’t, take their little hands and make the sign more. Say, “more”.

4. Feed them the food.

5. Repeat with every bite. (Yes, I said every bite….I told you it was intense!)

6. Be amazed at how quickly they learn to say more.

7. Once baby has learned more, it doesn’t need to be said every time, just once their plate is empty and they’re still hungry, etc.

These general steps should be used for ALL signs!

Now, you might be wondering, “What signs should I teach my baby?” Here’s my list of MUST know signs: (The ones to start with!) Each sign is linked to a short video of how to do the sign from two great websites, Baby Sign Language and the ASL Browser from Michigan State.

Here are some that are really, really good to know:

These are even good to use once your baby has oral language developed. I used these in my 2nd and 4th grade classrooms for times when I was unable to speak to the children. It helps a bit with behavior problems during times when it needs to be silent. I think it may be just as useful as a mommy!

Are you limited to just these signs? Absolutely not! There are so many fun signs to learn, so check out BabySignLanguage.com, get some picture books or DVDs and learn away! These are just a starting point. For instance, my daughter’s favorite sign is puppy…which I only taught her because she’s completely in love with our family dog.

 Finally, some people worry about oral language development with infants who use signs. They say they become dependent on the sign and don’t learn to say the word as quickly. Let me debunk that statement. In the room I was working in, most of these babies could SAY the word for the sign before they moved to the 1 year old classroom. How? Once the sign is mastered and the child is showing signs of oral language (saying “da” “ma” “ga”, etc.), start working on your child saying that word WITH the sign. So, when they ask more, make the baby say “Mm”. Follow the same method as above. The child signs more, you say “Say more.”, baby says “Mm”, give them more. Continue to build sounds as they create them consistently, so the next step would be “mo”, etc. And, before you know it, they’re actually saying the words.

 So, there you have it: My crash course in teaching sign language to infants. Please, let me know if you have any questions, would like to see more videos, or have any comments!

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