Why I Wish I’d Used Baby Sign Language

Why I Wish We'd Used Baby Sign LanguageAmong the things I was “never going to do” as a mother was baby sign language. I really, really thought that for hearing children, this was a pointless act: why teach signs when they can just learn the words? My Mom swears I was speaking in full sentences by my first birthday, I assumed my Cub would be the same.

At work, my husband often conducts “RCAs:” Root cause analyses. What caused the problem? How do we solve it? We do the same with our marriage, and, now with our toddler.

Problem: Cub has a meltdown when we don’t understand what he wants. He points frantically. He grabs our face or hands to direct us to what he wants. He throws his food or cup on the floor. We guess. We guess a lot, and we guess wrong. Cub gets frustrated so he cries and gets angry. We get annoyed and lose our patience.

Root cause: He cannot communicate his wants and needs yet with words. He’s 18 months and he says “chat” (cat, in French) for most animals, “doux, doux” (gentle) when touching animals, “c’est chaud” (it’s hot) for most cooking actions and steaming food, “ba ba” for ball, and “No!” for… everything else. None of these words cover situations like when he’s done eating, wants to go outside, go home, have a glass of water, have a snack, go to bed…. etc.

Solution: Help him communicate by teaching him some baby signs along with emphasizing the words he needs. Teach his future siblings baby signing from the start!

My Preconceived Notions About Baby Sign Language

I really thought that signing was a replacement for speaking. I thought that teaching Cub signs would mean he wouldn’t be compelled to learn to speak. I thought that, since he’s in a bilingual home, signing would be an unnecessary additional challenge. I thought that infants couldn’t learn signs any faster than they could learn the actual words.

I babysat my cousin who was signing when she was 1. Her favourite sign was “more.” I just thought it was silly, that the sign was stopping her from just saying, “more.”

I was wrong.

  • I didn’t do signs with my Cub, and he doesn’t have many words. (In other words, I assumed he would be speaking by now because we didn’t do signs… not the case!)
  • It may be taking him longer to speak because he’s in a bilingual home, and, in fact, SIGNING would have helped rather than hindered him. Says linguist Linda Easten-Waller, “Rather than confusing your bilingual child, Baby Signs will help smooth the road to understanding and speaking both languages.” (Check out the full article on the benefits of signing for bilingual babies here.)
  • I’ve now learned that as early as 6 months old, both hearing and Deaf babies can start signing. This post from Sunshine Praises really inspired me!
  • My cousin signing “more” with her hands is much more effective and less annoying that squealing and pointing!

Milk: Our First Sign

When he was about 16-months-old, my frustration with Cub ripping at my shirt when he wanted to nurse, and (despite my best repetitions of the word “milk”) showing no signs of assigning a word to this desire led me to try teaching him the sign for milk. (Opening and closing a fist, kind of like milking a cow!)

Every time we nursed, I would sign it and say “milk.” I would keep signing it while he nursed. It didn’t happen overnight; it probably took a month of constant repetition, but now he signs for milk 100% of the time! When my husband talks to him, he signs milk and says “du lait.”

Signing for milk is the single clearest wish that he communicates. It is empowering for him and makes me so happy to know I’m understanding him!

Late Bloomers

I wish that two months ago I had learned and started teaching a couple more signs. I’m absolutely certain that if he could reliably communicate his most frequent desires, the majority of our meltdowns would be avoided.

When he’s frustrated because I won’t let him do something, or do something he doesn’t like, I help him voice his frustrations like I learned in The Happiest Toddler on the Block (known in the book as the “Fast Food Rule”). This helps a lot with those tantrums. But when he can’t get me to understand what he wants or needs, there’s nothing I can do except guess until I get it right.

I don’t want Cub to learn every barnyard animal in signs, but I would like him to learn these basics: (links to the sign from Babysignlanguage.com, I find this website very helpful!)

I don’t know when Cub will start adding more words to his vocabulary, nor how easily we will assimilate these signs into our daily routine. All I know is that I will continue to learn more about signing, and will most definitely use it with our future children. I’m sure that Cub will enjoy learning new signs with me, and help me teach his future siblings!

Related links:

Baby Signing at The Parenting Patch

What is your experience with baby signing?

24 responses to “Why I Wish I’d Used Baby Sign Language”

  1. Mylène

    Ahhhh! I’m in the same situation than you, but my girl is 3 years old right now… the guessing game is so much difficult by the fact that we don’t know which of french or english kiddo is talking at the moment so the range of world is larger, but it’s even more frustrating for the kid when others can’t understand him, but not because he mumbles but because the other don’t speaks english in our case (like daycare or my family)… Now, she understand that not everybody talks english like her, so, since Xmas, she isn’t talking english at her daycare anymore

  2. meghan

    I would say, go easy on yourself. We did signing with A., and I do advocate for signing, but there has been no shortage of meltdowns!

  3. Thank you so much for the link. Honestly, even as as person fluent in sign language, I wasn’t always convinced of the benefit of using sign language with a baby. We are also bilingual, ASL and English but I still had a handful of what I considered “emphasized” signs that I used with my hearing children. Your list is perfect but I would also add atleast one or two bathroom signs. It is quiet pleasant when my little one comes running across the playground signing “bathroom” instead of screaming “I gotta poop” – LOL. I taught this one like a manners sign.

    1. Oooh! A bathroom sign! Potty training is SO far off my radar I didn’t even think of that!

  4. Jenn C

    We started signing with my son when he was about 9 months old. He didn’t start using any until closer to a year, but they have come in handy. I was very laid back about it and didn’t always use them, but I’m trying to be more consistent now as I do find that they help in those tough situations. My son is 19 months now and is talking about the same as yours, so we certainly do have those communication block moments. I find that in those tough moments he will sign for something familiar (i.e. ‘eat’ or ‘come’) and even if that wasn’t what he originally wanted he is satisfied with getting his thoughts across in some way.

  5. sal

    I think it also helps when they first start talking. Those first few words don’t really sound like anything, but when they signed as well, I could figure it out, and that encouraged them to keep talking.

  6. katy emanuel

    We did sign language with our daughter and it was a huge help since she was able to communicate with us so it relieved some of the frustration. It is also nice now that we can remind her with signs about manners, etc and no one else in the room is aware of us giving the reminders. We started when my daughter was 5 months old.

  7. kenner82

    I’d always exposed my son to some basic signs (more, all done, eat, water, juice) but he never took to it very early on. It wasn’t until he was older and his vocal speech didn’t come in that he started using more signs (he was making sign language gains probably around 16-18 months or so? So you don’t HAVE to start when they’re babies to see the benefits of it!) He knew a few signs for animals or random toys, but the ones that saved our sanity were the functional ones (for food or other preferred items, or else he’d sign “please” as his kind of random, catch-all sign when he needed help, because that sign was rather hard for him to do!) He started speech therapy shortly before he turned 2, and while he’s always had his typical toddler tantrums, I swear that the signs helped ease his frustrations when he wasn’t being understood (if nothing else, at least if he signed “please” we knew he was trying to ask us to do something, and our obviously trying to figure it out seemed to appease him more than if he was just shrieking and we didn’t know why!) He just turned 3 and his vocal speech has come a long way, but he still uses some of those basic signs when we aren’t understanding what he’s trying to say, and that’s hugely helpful for us and for him. My youngest is about 16 months now and just starting to incorporate a few more signs into her repertoire (she uses “more” to mean all food and drink, so I’m trying to get her to differentiate those!) 😉 It’s totally possible to teach younger children how to sign, but I just want people to know that it’s also never to late to use some basic signs (we’ve even made up signs for when we didn’t know the official ones!) and it can actually be super helpful with toddlers to be able to give them some visual cues for when they’re having a meltdown and not listening well! So don’t write it off for Cub just yet! 😉

    1. Definitely not writing it off at all! We are working on “eating” and “drinking” and “all done” today!

      1. kenner82

        It’s so fun to see how they can take a sign and make it their own, too 😉 My son could never make the proper sign for “water” (he only just now has figured out how to hold those 3 fingers up for the “W”!) so he’d just put one finger on his mouth so that it looked kind of like he was thinking really hard about something 😉 His sign for “juice” (which is ALSO really hard to sign!) looked like he was pointing a pretend gun at someone (I had to just train my brain to make the association that “gun fingers” equaled “juice”!) I’ve been trying to get Emily to make the sign for “eat”, and instead she puts the whole back of her hand into her mouth and says “mamama” for “more”! LOL! But hey, as long as it works, I’ll take it! 😉

        1. As long as it’s not the middle finger waving about lol

          1. kenner82

            Haha, hey, that’s communicating something, too! 😉

  8. Isabel

    So interesting. It never occured to me that people would *not* see the benefits of signing! Eye opening. We’re a trilingual household. I started signing before 6 months and DD started around 8-10 months. She made up her own sign for more until she figured out the official one. It didn’t matter, as long as we both knew what it was!
    For sure it’s helpful with a multilingual child because, in daycare for example, they might not understand a spanish word she says, but they’ll recognize the sign. And as pp said, even when they’re soeaking, it”/ not always intelligible. Signing gives it a context.
    My aha moment was when DD pushed away her food and I thought she was done until she signed more. That’s when I realized that she just wanted something else! Without signing, I would have simply remoed the tray and ended the meal.

  9. LOVE your explanation of how NOT signing with your son has created frustration that cannot be solved with Dr. Karp’s toddlerease method. I love his book – and recommend it all the time, but I disagree with the method in using toddlerease to show them you understand or have empathy as it does not in any way shape or form make the communication problem solved. I teach baby sign language classes in San Diego and have a youtube channel that may help you with those other FUN signs you are looking to teach your son…. http://www.youtube.com/sign4babycom with several videos being Signing Story Time of popular books babies and toddlers love!

    1. Great! Thanks for sharing, we will check it out.

  10. aly V L

    I have been trying to teach my son some basic signs that I know (picked up from my own childhood as well as a placement in college at a childcare center). I am hoping we can communicate enough with just the basics (milk, water, eat, more, please, my name and his baby sitters name) I have always worried that without the need to vocalize needs a child might not pick up speech as quickly. But at only 6 months I find myself having a difficult time guessing his needs some days so I have been trying to teach him what I know

  11. Bianca Munoz

    This sounds cool! We have a local place that teaches this. It’s a little pricey though.
    I wanted to with my first and I slacked. He is currently in speech classes.
    And my little is 4 months old right now…I hope I don’t slack with her 😡 :3

  12. Julianne Wiebe

    I’ve read that babies/toddlers will pick up sign language a lot quicker if you teach them some fun words for their pleasure along with the practical words like the ones on your list. It makes it more interesting to the child, and makes them want to learn! I did signing with my first child and am doing it with my fourth. With the second and third I felt too busy and overwhelmed to find the time to get started.

  13. Annie Mercier

    Very young (i forgot when, maybe 2-3 months) my baby was signing “bisous”. She wants kisses ALL THE TIME, but it’s so fun and better than meltdown (not that at 3 months she would have cry for not getting kisses). Not at 6months she signs also “milk” and “all done”. Another one that I find useful is “diaper change”.
    I just find it difficult to sign words with 2 hands when you are holding a baby or something else in your hand, so all the time.

  14. […] cousin has been articulate and well-spoken from a very young age. Furthermore, when I finally introduced some signs with my firstborn, I found it supremely helpful in our bilingual household. You know what happened […]

  15. Thanks for sharing! it is nice to hear so many people speaking positively about baby sign language. Some people in my life don’t approve of my teaching my now 28 month old son signs. I don’t want to say he is non-verbal, because he babbles and tries to say words but he can’t quite get them out correctly. He would rather make the sound for something than say the words so we use signing as our primary means of communication. He understands everything I say and follows directions no problem even if I don’t sign to him. He can put two or more signed words together as well.

    My favorite signs for my son are:
    Please and thank you
    More and all done
    Changed (diaper)
    Milk and eat (I am trying to use drink instead of milk more now since we are trying to wean)
    Brush teeth and potty

    Since he doesn’t really speak English yet, I’m going to try to continue adding more signed words to his vocabulary. I found a really good ASL course on youtube I’ve been taking and it has really increased my understanding of the language and makes me excited to learn more. http://rochellebarlow.com/

  16. We started signing around 4 months old perhaps, “milk” being the first one (and the only one we did for a while), and when our daughter picked up on it, we started adding more signs: more, eat, drink, all done, please, thank you, change diapers, dog, cat, bird, book, apple, banana, brushing teeth, hurt, chaud, chapeau, etc.
    Now, at 27 months old, she has just a few spoken words (I must say that I am getting a bit worried), but we are also a bilingual (English / French) home, and between signs and spoken words, her vocabulary is around 60 words/signs. She understands well both languages (English / French).
    We are happy to report very few meltdowns (compared to what other parents are telling us) and we think that the signs play a huge part in this.

  17. […] get pregnant” conversations, I came across a post by Lindsay at Maman Loup’s Den about why she wished she’d used baby sign language. I read the article she linked to about the benefits of signing for bilingual babies and I was […]

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My name is Lindsay and I am a 40-year-old mama of four trying to live an eco-friendly, budget-friendly life! I am a substitute teacher and Child Passenger Safety technician in Calgary, Alberta. Join me on my adventures!

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