Among 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!
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!