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Baby signs are a system of non-verbal communication designed to encourage babies and toddlers who have yet to develop spoken language skills to communicate their needs. Most signs are loosely based on American Sign Language, although some modifications have been made to make the gestures easier for children to learn. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn are two of the researchers credited with popularizing the idea of using sign language to practice talking with your baby.
The vocabulary of baby sign language is fairly simple. Common baby signs include gestures for “food”, “change me”, “sleepy”, and “help”. These are known as need-based signs, since they encourage a child to communicate his/her basic needs. Baby signs such as “puppy”, “car”, “television,” or “book” are called highly motivating signs, since they are intended to encourage a child to express interest in a particular object or activity.
Parents who practice baby signs with their children say signing with your baby offers many benefits. By allowing babies to communicate when they are hungry, angry, or tired, frustration levels are reduced for everyone in the family. The time spent teaching your child to sign may also be a great bonding experience.
However, not everyone is convinced baby sign is useful. Some researchers believe children who can express themselves through this form of sign language will be less motivated to develop their verbal skills. Others feel the process of teaching baby signs is too time consuming and encourages parents to unnecessarily pressure their children.
If you’re interested in learning more about baby signs, there are a number of instructional materials offering tips on teaching sign language to your child. Books and websites tend to provide an informal approach to signing with your baby, while DVDs offer the opportunity for structured lessons. Choosing the best method of teaching baby signs requires careful consideration of your child’s temperament and your own interest level.
Although most of the references available for parents interested in baby signs focus on teaching children who are simply too young for spoken language, there is some evidence that baby signs may be useful for older children who suffer from developmental disabilities. For example, simple baby signs can be useful for autistic children who lack the capacity for verbal communication. There have been several cases where severely autistic children showed a decrease in aggression and tantrums once they were able to use signs to communicate their needs to parents and other caregivers.
Although no one in my family is deaf, we chose to teach my daughter to sign starting at around 6 months. My mother knows ASL, as do 2 of my aunts, so it was something we could all appreciate and enjoy. By the time my daughter was 1 year old, she could use over 100 signs and recognized several more that she simply didn't have the dexterity to do yet (but has since mastered). She's a little over 2 now and if signing "slowed down her verbal skills" as some would claim, we can't tell. Her teachers at preschool always tell us how amazingly well she communicates, and how clearly her speech is, and how much better she can speak than her classmates. Last night we were practicing conjugating the "be" verbs! She's 28 months old!
We enjoyed watching the Signing Time videos with her, and she still asks to watch them all the time. They are very enjoyable and move at a good pace - not to slow to be boring but not too fast -- you can pick up the signs and remember them all after only a few views.
Both of my wife's sisters have used ASL with their baby girls and so has another friend of mine. It is astounding to see these little girls sign and talk to each other so well, when most kids their age are just throwing blocks at each other! I firmly believe teaching ASL to babies and toddlers spurs their minds into developing abstract thought and reasoning that gives them a great head start. But who am I? Just a dad who has seen what happens when you spend some quality time with your kids trying to teach them something useful... how could that possibly be worth the effort? ;) If anything, it gets parents into the habit of spending quiet time with their kids doing constructive activities, and that's a habit all parents should have.