Two weeks after my son’s first birthday, we started opening his presents on our living room floor. One of them was a Fisher Price walker, which was yet to be assembled by my husband later that night, so it was left on the floor. My then-12-month-old son saw the uninstalled walker, tried to climb onto it a few times, sat himself down in the middle… and signed BUS.
My son, who could not speak at that time, communicated (for the first time) what his mind was thinking at that very moment–that he was riding on a bus. The moment my son signed back to me finally paved the way to a stress-free journey of raising a toddler–no fuss, no crying–more smiles and understanding. Indeed, how amazing it would be for parents to be able to explore the minds of their babies–to see what they’re seeing, to think what they’re thinking, and to feel what they’re feeling. It is possible! Read on for more benefits of baby sign language below!
When a baby cries, what do you do? How do you feel? Do you know what he’s actually crying about? Do you know what he’s really feeling? Most of the time we don’t. It’s usually a guessing game for the caregivers, and it takes a lot of trial and error before we understand what it is our baby needs at that given time. Even then, we never really get a complete picture of what the baby’s currently experiencing.
Baby sign language eliminates any misunderstanding between baby and caregiver. My then-15-month-old son signed HURT as he wailed while I was trying to get him to bed. I calmly asked him, “Where?” And he pointed to his stomach. True enough, a few minutes later, he started to vomit as I patted his back in the hopes of making him feel a little bit better. It was an unfortunate incident, but after he signed what he felt, I was better prepared for what came next.
During that same month, our then-caregiver (who I also somewhat taught baby sign language to) was in the car with my son. During the car ride, my son cried while signing MUSIC and SLEEP. Our caregiver understood him–my son wanted her to change the loud pop music the driver was playing to 98.7 for the classical songs because he was sleepy. Our caregiver obliged, and was even proud of that moment that she understood what her alaga was trying to say.
At 18 months of age, babies are expected to speak at least ten words and should dramatically increase to 50 words as the months pass. At that age, their vocabulary is already impressive. However, babies fall short when it comes to responding in ways that we, adults, understand. There are limitations to speaking due to the slow development of babies’ voices (larynges and vocal chords), and waiting for them to stop babbling and actually start pronouncing words properly can be a long and rough road for some parents.
If this doesn’t impress you, an NIH-funded study was conducted in 1989 to compare two groups of 11-month-old babies where one group was being spoken to, while the other group was taught baby sign language in addition to speaking to them. The study published that the 8-year-old children (who used to sign as babies) scored 12 points higher on IQ tests compared to non-signers.
Babies yearn to be understood as early as the day they were born–a mere cry or whimper when hungry is already a form of communication. But because their vocal chords will not quite have been developed yet before they turn a year old, the sound /ba/ could mean different things. In the case of my son, /ba/ meant a bag, a bus, a balloon, a box, or even a bicycle.
One night while we were swapping stories, he mentioned /a-ti/ /ni-ko/ to which I asked, “Who’s Ate Nico?” He sighed in frustration and was forced to sign AUNTIE for “Auntie Nicole” who he met at a restaurant. That helped clear things up for us.
Baby sign language links different languages together and forms a unified concept in the baby’s mind. Both hands with fingers curled, touching each other forming a small round-shaped object is pronounced as ball in English, 球 qiu in Chinese, and bola in Filipino.
So far there hasn’t been any confusion with our son–he speaks Chinese with us, speaks Filipino with our household helpers and drivers, and understands English when spoken to.
So now that you know how beneficial baby sign language can be for both you and your baby, now what?
Not a lot of parents know this, but there are a ton of baby sign language resources available–online, in books, DVDs, some classes offered in the community, or your neighbor who simply happens to know how to sign. My favorites include a book titled Baby Sign Language Basics: Early Communication for Hearing Babies and Toddlers by Monta Z. Briant and a DVD titled Baby Signing Time! by Rachel Coleman.
While the best times to sign are when you are having a conversation with your baby (“Do you want to drink MILK?” While you sign MILK.), through songs or music, and reading books or storytelling, there will always be opportunities to employ baby signs. It would also be great if you could start as early as six months old. If all goes well, your baby should be able to sign back by at least eight months. But don’t fret if she doesn’t, all babies develop differently. Learning baby sign language is just like learning a new language–it takes time and practice.
This is the most common question asked by parents. I understand this worry completely because I asked myself the same thing. But the answer is a flat out NO. In fact, the speech development is either on time or more advanced because of the early confidence boost due to the ability to communicate at a startlingly early age.
Now if you think your baby is smart, you will be more surprised by his intelligence once he starts communicating with you even before he learns how to talk!
- Acredolo, Linda P. and Susan W. Goodwyn. “The Longtime Impact of Symbolic Gesturing During Infancy on IQ at Age 8.” International Conference on Infant Studies. July 18, 2000: Brighton, U.K.
- BabyCenter Staff. “Your Child’s Talking Timeline.” Baby Center. Last updated October 2015.
- The New Age Parents. “Speech Development in Young Children.” The New Age Parents. Date accessed July 24, 2018.