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Teaching a Baby Sign Language

written by: Beth Taylor • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 2/14/2012

Teach babies to sign in ways that are appropriate to early child development. This article gives practical tips and examples for teaching baby sign language. You will be on your way to signing with your infant in no time!

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    Children of all ages soak up information. It is mind-boggling, however, to think about the amount of information infants process in such a short span of time. They learn to recognize faces, identify sounds, and interpret both intonation and spoken words. Teaching baby sign language can be a natural extension of these skills during this period of development.

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    Exposure to Sign Language

    Babies and very young children learn by being exposed to the world. They figure out language by simply hearing it. They learn to recognize patterns that they see, and they discover and remember texture when they touch it.

    When spoken language is accompanied by consistent hand signs, babies learn to associate the sign with the spoken word.

    It is no more necessary to explicitly teach an infant sign language that it is necessary to teach an infant "this is Mommy's face" or that there is contrast in the black and white picture.

    Babies pick up and process information simply by being exposed to it. It is not necessary to sit down and instruct or tutor an infant. Please do not try to extract a result, but rather, simply sign when you are talking and have no demands nor expectations of the child. Conducting a session in which you try to get the infant or toddler to sign back can do more harm than good.

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    Consistency When Using Signs

    Consistency is extremely important. If every time a baby hears the word "Robert," his older brother comes running, the baby will figure out that Robert = older brother. The word "sit" always seems to mean the dog will sit. For an infant to decode signs, the signs must be used with consistency.

    If every time the answer is "yes," the word is said along with a small nodding fist, the infant is most likely to associate the two.

    Along with consistency comes repetition. With all ages, repetition is a key to learning. Using signs both consistently and often with little ones helps ensure their understanding.

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    Relevant Signs for Daily Life

    It is best to use signs that are relevant to the young one's life. Yes, no, please, and thank you are easy ones to incorporate. Hungry, thirsty, finished, and toilet are highly relevant. (The sign for "toilet" can be used for diaper changes, and later for the toilet.)

    As the infant grows and becomes a toddler, more and more words will become relevant. Ball, teddy bear, airplane, etc.

    Many signs are learned during "teaching moments." For example, baby has just finished her first cup of applesauce and looks up longingly. Make the sign for 'more,' say the word 'more,' and offer more applesauce.

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    Simplicity and Expectations

    When signing with little ones, keep it simple. Just as a toddler will speak with fewer words and broken sentences before developing eloquence, so it is with sign. "Teddy bear" will most likely mean "I want my teddy bear" or "Where is my teddy bear?"

    In closing, it is best to have no expectations of the child. Parents sometimes excitedly and with the best of intentions have great expectations for their baby; this sets them up for disappointment which does not help the child.

    Some children take to sign more readily than others, just like some children love to finger paint and others might prefer to run around. Some children are more talkative than others, and some children sign more than others. Sign is a valuable tool to incorporate in family communication regardless of how often a child chooses to sign. The important thing when teaching baby sign language, is do not give up. The child may be understanding, but not repeating the sign back to you yet.

    Also, all children develop at their own pace. Parents don't insist their baby roll over, but the first time he does is cause for celebration. So it is with sign.

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    Additional Resources