Monday, June 29, 2009

Favorites, Part 5: Baby Signs

I don't even remember where I first heard about the idea, and I was slightly skeptical at first, but I'm a convert now. I love baby signs. If you're not familiar with this, it's a simplified form of sign language for babies. Babies often have the brainpower to communicate before they have the developmental ability to actually talk. If a baby can wave bye-bye, they can learn other signs and gestures too.

The most useful signs are things like: more, all done, food, drink, nurse, and diaper change. Other signs that are easy, fun, or useful are things like: mommy, daddy, bath, sleep, cat, dog, bird, etc. You can get pretty elaborate with vocabulary. At our house we mostly stick to the basics.

But let me tell you, it's SOOO nice to be able to find out what the poor kid is crying about. Throw in yes/no and pointing and we can have a very useful interaction: What do you need Owen? Food. Ok, let's go to the kitchen and get you a snack. Do you want this yogurt? No. How about applesauce? No. (Points to sauerkraut.)

Sauerkraut?! I wouldn't have guessed that in a million years. But he ate a bowlful and then asked for more. And then a drink. All without talking. And probably more importantly, he stopped crying as soon as we started moving toward his goal.

It's also cool to see combinations emerge. My favorite example was one day when I was taking Owen out to the car. I was just getting ready to put him in his seat when I realized only the driver's door was unlocked. So I walked back around to the other side of the car to hit the "unlock" button. Owen got really upset because he thought we were going back to the boring old house. So he starts crying, and signing more and waving bye-bye. More bye-bye. That's just cool.

We used the book Baby Signs, which I think was the original, or at least an early proponent. There are a ton of imitators and variants out there now. Not surprising I guess, since it's so easy and so useful.

There's no evidence that it delays speech or confuses kids when they do start speaking. The opposite seems to be true. The research shows that it apparently gives them a bit of a cognitive head start on language skills. And once they do learn to talk, the signs become less efficient than words, so they fall by the wayside.

The book was interesting, going over the research that's been done, examples of how it helped different families, and quite a few potentially handy signs. To be honest though, you don't need a book. The actual signs don't matter. They just have to be simple enough that a baby can do them. Whole hand gestures are better than anything requiring finger dexterity. Intuitive signs are useful (pretend your finger is a banana and imitate peeling it), and anything that's similar to ASL is good too if you ever have any sense you might want to learn it. And signs for words that are hard for little kids to say can come in handy as well.

Infants probably won't get it, but you can start early if you like. I think we started trying to work them in around 6 months and that may have been a bit too early to sink in. But it got us in the habit.

Owen's starting to talk now. Or at least blurt out the first syllables of various words. (Every animal is a dog. Or a "dah!") But it'll still be a little while before he really gets going. (His brother won't let him get a word in edgewise anyway...)

For such a small effort, the payoff is pretty sweet.


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At 6/30/2009 5:42 AM, OpenID daisyfae said...

i was astonished a few years ago to see my niece signing with her 9 month old - would have loved this with my little dudes. but then again, with my clan? they'd have learned some bad words early, no doubt!

At 6/30/2009 9:45 AM, Blogger thenn said...

We are huge fans too! "help, please" stopped more than one crying jag in our house. It never stopped amazing me to see Addie come to the verge of crying, then stop and sign for help(Ella never kept that presence of mind). My only sadness is both kids seem to refuse to keep signing when they mastered speaking.

At 6/30/2009 3:51 PM, Blogger network_weasel said...

Baby signing rocks! Asking for more banana with sign was an amazing thing to see. As with thenn, our little one did not keep using it once he started speaking. It might have stayed around a little longer, as he was hearing both English and Polish at home. At 4 years, he does not really use the signing at all. And Polish is only used for those things he learned when they spent a few months in Poland last year.

At 6/30/2009 3:56 PM, Blogger Bucky said...

Baby Signs rock!

My son learned the basic signs early on. Yes, no, food, diaper, hold me.

That pretty much encompasses everything an infant cares about. Hell, that pretty much encompasses everything anyone cares about.

Food, crap, affection.

Everyone always commented that my son was so calm and never fussy. I believe that it is attributable to the fact that he was able to communicate his basic needs/wants.

At 6/30/2009 5:14 PM, Blogger Wendy said...


We used a combination of attachment-style parenting and intuitive non-verbal communication with our children. I didn't think they were talking as early as some of their peers, but they were speaking full, completely intelligible sentences by the time they were three.

At 7/01/2009 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lack luster mother that I am, I just used whatever worked at the moment, but found signing extremely useful with my dev. del. dd. By the time started talking at 4, she had 300 signs, a combo of signed English (didn't want to introduce another language, so didn't used ASL). She still uses signs when tired or doesn't know the word -- she'll make up a new sign.

Does Amelia sign?


At 7/01/2009 7:28 PM, Blogger e4 said...

MEA - No, Amelia's never picked up on the signs. I think it's too abstract for her, at least at this point.


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