Q&A: signing with your baby

Bonnie writes:

"What can you tell a new parent about baby sign language? My daughter is three months old, and she watches us so intently that it feels like time to start signing with her, even though she won't be able to use those signs for many months yet. What's your experience? Can you offer any tips for starting out? Good resources for parents?"

All anyone wants is to be understood. And babies are just small people, so it makes sense that they're trying to communicate from the day they come out. They do whatever they can--from crying to coughing to snuffling to making little grunting noises--to tell us when they're hungry, wet, scared, angry, tired, or just in need of a snuggle.

And they start to pick up our language and signals right away, too. My second son was a champion nurser from the get-go, so since we had no latch or supply issues, I decided to work on communication right away. Starting the second day he was out, whenever I'd latch him on I'd say "nurse" clearly. After a few days of doing this consistently, when he started to fuss I'd ask "Nurse?" and he'd calm down and wait for me to put him on. He knew I understood what he wanted, so he calmed down.

I think those early efforts at communication started a feedback loop. Once he understood the word "nurse," I started adding in the sign for "milk." I had absolutely no expectations that he'd understand the sign until he was at least 5 or 6 months old, or that he'd be able to make the sign himself until 8 or 9 months. But I think he just got into the habit of paying attention to the way I was communicating with him. My mother swears he signed "milk" to her when he was three months old. (She didn't know I was signing with him yet, but remembered the sign from when my older one used it.) The next day my dad told me he saw it, too, and the day after that my husband saw it.

So I think if you feel like she's watching you intently right now, you might as well start the signing. Your daughter will probably not sign back right away since she probably doesn't have the motor control necessary (except for "milk," perhaps, which is pretty easy), but that doesn't mean she won't understand pretty soon when you sign to her.

If you start signing to her this early, I would do only one or a couple of clear, easy signs, and I would be as consistent as possible. I'd suggest milk to start. Maybe add in bath (if she really likes baths) in a few months. Then you'll figure out what to do next. (Bed, more, and all done are good things to consider, as is the sign for whatever kind of pet you have.)

If you start signing later on (8-9 months or later) you can start with one sign or a couple at the same time. Some people love the Signing Time videos and/or the Joseph Garcia Sign With Your Baby Kit. Others of us are waaaay too cheap for that fancy stuff and just find our signs on an online American Sign Language dictionary. Or you could buy or borrow (from the library) a paper ASL dictionary.

When you do start signing, make sure you're having fun with it. There's plenty of evidence that signing helps babies communicate so they're less frustrated and can make their needs known, so they throw fewer tantrums. Kids who learn sign also tend to speak earlier (probably because they're used to the give and take of specific communication). But not all kids get into signs. My older one only ever learned a few signs (milk, more, bath, all done), but he spoke on the early side. I think he just wanted to go right to the talking (he's still a real jabberjaw) so he had no time for signing. In contrast, one of his friends had over 30 signs that she used regularly by the time she was a year old. Their language development seemed to be about even, but she just had a heavier balance of signs to words than he did until they were over 2 years old. So, as with almost everything, it has a lot to do with your child's personality, and you shouldn't get tied up in knots about it if your child won't sign back.

So, yes, go ahead and start signing with your daughter. As long as it's a fun game and way to increase the closeness and communication you have, you might as well do it. Just don't tell any doubting relatives until your baby starts signing back.