Baby Sign Language = Earlier Communication

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When your baby is born, you try to anticipate every need he or she could possibly have. A cry may mean your newborn is having one of a myriad of emotions, including hunger, thirst, sleepiness, wetness, heat, cold or just “I want to be picked up!”

As you spend time together, you will soon be able to recognize the subtle nuances of your new human, and as he or she grows, you can begin to use sign language to help him or her express a need. The first sign is usually “more,” which is signed by bunching the fingers on both hands and tapping them together. Since a baby doesn’t have the ability to let you know she wants more milk, more Cheerios or more fruit, she can become frustrated when you don’t understand. This is a truly effective way to communicate months earlier than waiting for vocal communication to develop.
The birth of Dr. Joseph Garcia’s son Stratton in 1985 was the motivator that focused his exploration into using sign language with babies long before they utter their first spoken word. His pioneering work in baby sign language is a way to help parents communicate with their infants and toddlers and adequately respond to their needs.

While infants and toddlers try to communicate their needs, their only way to do so is through crying, at least before they can speak. Cognitive language develops before speech, so your baby can’t communicate verbally even though she already understands a lot of what you say. The benefits of sharing sign language with your baby can provide a new insight into your baby’s world.
Baby sign language gestures can be found on the American Sign Language website, in books and easy-to-use DVDs. As you teach your child, it can be fun and gives you an excellent way to bond. This helps when you are out to eat, with family or other caregivers. If everyone knows a few simple signs, baby will find life more enjoyable and less tense.

Research suggests that between 8 and 12 months, when children start to understand what they want, need and feel but don’t have a way to convey it, sign language is an excellent building block toward speech. Children who have developmental delays might benefit as well. Remember, you can begin signing with your child at any age, but most children are not able to communicate with baby sign language until about eight months.

Start with signs to describe routine requests, activities and objects in your child’s life, such as more, drink, eat, mother and father. Choose those of most interest to your child. In addition to using formal signs, encourage meaningful gestures, such as pointing and the hand movements that accompany nursery rhymes. Always praise your child for her efforts and make the experience positive and something they will enjoy doing.

One teaching technique is to hold your baby in your lap with his back to your stomach and take baby’s arms and hands to make signs. This way, the baby understands how to do them. You can also give signs context by using them when giving your child a bath, changing their diaper, feeding or reading to her. For example, when you sign for more, give your baby a cracker. The goal is communication and less frustration, not perfection. Always talk to your baby as you sign; spoken communication is very valuable in developing speech.

When you incorporate signing in your day, you will find it becomes more natural. As you read, for example, or sing with your baby, go ahead and use hand gestures to act out certain parts, which your baby will love! Choose signs that interest your child the most,and incorporate meaningful gestures, such as pointing, clapping and dancing.

Finally, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to signing, meaning that children who use it are thought to gain psychological benefits, including improved confidence and self-esteem. Feelings of anger due to an inability to communicate won’t occur as much, and children who sign are considered bilingual. It is not true that signing delays speech; on the contrary, most babies who can sign speak earlier than those who do not. Studies show a higher IQ advantage, earlier reading and higher scores on tests.

Happy signing! ■

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Getting Started
These five signs will begin your journey.
Eat: Bunch your hand, then touch it to your mouth.
More: Bunch your hands with the fingers touching your thumb and tap your hands together.
Drink: Make a C shape with your hand and move it to your mouth.
Mother: Open your hand, then tap your thumb against your chin.
Father: Open your hand, then tap your thumb against your forehead.