One of the things I was adamant about doing when Madeline was born was teaching her American Sign Language. I wanted to make sure that she was able to communicate with me, even before she could speak, so that I could better understand her needs.
The easiest way to teach this is through repetition. From the time that she was about three months old, I would say the word I was trying to sign and also make the sign in front of her face, that way she’d know what it meant. She got a few down and was using them from 9 months to a year, but in the last few months, as she’s also learning to speak, has started to use them even more. I am lucky that her daycare also teaches sign language in the infant and one year old rooms, so it’s reinforced learning.
Here are some signs to get you started if you want to teach your baby American Sign Language:
Milk: This was by far the easiest sign for her, probably because she asked for it all the time! She started signing just after we weaned from nursing. I think it helped because instead of rooting or grabbing my shirt, she had a signal to show me she needed (or rather wanted) milk. Then I would get up and get it for her. You make this by making a closed fist and squeezing. She still makes that sign to this day, though she can now also say “milk”.
Finished/All Done: This was another sign that she picked up very quickly. We followed a modified version of baby led weaning, so she is frequently in her high chair with a few choices in front of her. We had noticed that when she was finished she would wave her hands across and knock all the food on the floor. Not acceptable behavior by any stretch of the imagination. So, we started teaching her all done, and she picked up very quickly. For this, instead of turning her palms over, she waves her hands all about, but we know what it means, and again, in teaching repetition, and eventually speech, when she does it, we say “All done?” What’s really neat, is that she’s taken it from just eating where we started to other places. When she’s done her bath now and wants to get out, she signs all done. When she doesn’t want to play with something anymore, she signs all done. It’s so helpful in figuring out her wants and needs.
Sleep: Sleep was a pretty easy one for her to learn, it’s a pretty natural movement. Madeline figured this one out on her own, we didn’t really teach it to her. That being said, she doesn’t quite do it correctly, which causes some confusion. The sign is both hands clasped together like a pillow. But, Madeline uses one hand and places it over her ear. This has been a little bit of a problem, particularly at daycare because they frequently tell me that she’s “pulling on her ear and cranky.” They think it’s a sign of an ear infection, I know that’s her sign for tired. Every baby is going to have some differences and pick up on signing a little in their own unique way, it’s important to just know your child and trust your instincts. And of course, if you’re concerned about ear infections, or other illness, call your pediatrician.
More: Madeline didn’t master this one until just after a year, while this is one we’ve been working on for a while, it’s taken her gaining some independence to be able to do it. After her last leap (see our post on The Wonder Weeks) she was able to figure out cause and effect. Because of that, she now knows that when she asks for more, she’s likely to get something, or be told no. So, she does it frequently, particularly with whatever we’re eating. But, she also does it for toys, games, and reading books. It’s a very clear and direct indication of what she wants and helps to eliminate some of those toddler tantrums by being able to communicate instead of getting frustrated.
Change: This is one that we worked on for a while, but it’s so much harder to teach. For a long time, Madeline had no concept of when she needed changing. It’s taken until she’s been just over a year old for her to realize that she’s uncomfortable and that is because she needs her diaper changed. Typically, I can smell that she needs it before she signs it to me! But, nonetheless I have been trying to teach her and she’s picking it up sometimes. She is able to sign change when she’s wet, and that helps! This is another one that she doesn’t quite get 100%, she grabs her wrist and thinks that means change, when it’s not quite the right sign. Again, every baby will be different and it just takes working with them and knowing them.
Please: Please, and consequently, thank you have been really hard for Madeline to learn. She’s just shy of 16 months at this point and starting to pick up on them, though not consistently. About a week ago she was staring at me, and I know she wanted the item I was holding. I kept saying “say please Madeline” and showing her what the sign is. I’d rub my chest in a circle and say “please.” I even picked up her hand and rubbed it in a circle on her chest and said please. Inevitably, instead of doing it herself, she walked up to me, took her tiny hand and rubbed it on my chest in a circle. I’ll take that- it’s all part of learning! Since that day, she’s started to do it more herself, they are working on it with her at day care and that helps, but she’s also picking up on if she says please (or signs please) we are much more likely to give her what she wants quickly. Again, it’s part of that cause and effect learning skill developed in her last leap. Once she can demonstrate please consistently, we will try thank you.
We’ve really loved watching her be able to communicate non verbally through American Sign Language – it makes our lives as parents easier. But what I will say as a piece of advice for those wanting to try it- make sure your child is developmentally at a place where it’s appropriate. Read The Wonder Weeks, look for cues of recognition and then try to teach the appropriate words and phrases. And above all, be patient. It’s a very big world that they are learning about, and while you’re trying to help them, you have to make it fun and easy for them. If you’re looking for additional resources on teaching baby sign language to your child, check out this great website, it has tons of tips you may find useful, I know I did!