Teaching sign language to children as young as six months old has become more and more popular over the past decade. This practice of using modified gestures from American Sign Language is appropriately referred to as baby sign language, and research suggests that it might give a typically developing child a way to communicate several months earlier than those who only use vocal communication. This can help ease frustration between ages eight months and two years — when children begin to know what they want, need, and feel, but don’t necessarily yet have the verbal skills to express themselves. Children who have developmental delays might benefit, too.
Infants who learn baby sign language are also thought to gain psychological benefits, such as improved confidence and self-esteem. Feelings of anger due to an inability to communicate may not occur as often, and anyone who’s had a frustrated toddler throwing a tantrum can certainly see the benefit in that. Having the ability to sign could be a lifesaver when a child is too distraught to speak clearly. It may also actually facilitate the acquisition of verbal and written forms of communication later on.
Parents say that signing is rewarding, and aids bonding because of the need to make more eye-to-eye and tactile contact. Also, as children age, it may be easier and perhaps kinder to reprimand the child in public using sign language, saying “no” for example, and equally can become a way of giving praise privately.
If you decide to implement the use of baby sign language with your child, Mayo Clinic offers these helpful tips:
- Set realistic expectations. Feel free to start signing with your child at any age — but remember that most children aren’t able to communicate with baby sign language until about age eight months.
- Keep signs simple. Start with signs to describe routine requests, activities, and objects in your child’s life — such as more, drink, eat, mother and father.
- Make it interactive. Try holding your baby on your lap, with his or her back to your stomach. Embrace your baby’s arms and hands to make signs. Alternate talking and not talking while signing. To give signs context, try signing while bathing, diapering, feeding, or reading to your baby. Acknowledge and encourage your child when he or she uses gestures or signs to communicate.
- Stay patient. Don’t get discouraged if your child uses signs incorrectly or doesn’t start using them right away. The goal is improved communication and reduced frustration — not perfection.
- Stay verbal too. As you teach baby sign language, it’s important to continue talking to your child as well. Spoken communication is an integral part of your child’s speech development.
As you can imagine, not only does taking part in baby sign language provide the discussed benefits, but it can flat out just be a lot of fun for the whole family too. Even parents may learn a thing or two – not only some signs, but also greater insight into how your children can communicate, and how to better reciprocate that.