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Teaching Your Infant to Sign

All done. Those were my son’s long anticipated first words. He “spoke” them using sign language when he was just nine months old.

Why teach sign, you ask? There are many benefits. A primary benefit is reduced frustration for both parent and child. When babies are first born, they communicate primarily through crying. While it is very motivating to answer their calls, it isn’t always clear what they need. Are they too hot? too cold? hungry? Over time, parents learn to differentiate the cries to some extent. As children grow older, however, their needs become more complex.

Most of us have probably seen a crying toddler pointing insistently at something as a frantic parent picks up one object after another and says, “Is this it?” The problem is that a child’s verbal ability lags behind the desire to communicate. Speaking requires coordination of muscles of the throat, tongue, and lips. As we develop, our ability to control our bodies moves from gross to fine motor control. Thus, children are able to control their hands to make signs long before they are able to speak words. If children are taught to make a specific gesture to communicate a specific word, they will be able to indicate their fears, needs, and thoughts long before they can verbalize them. You will be able to meet their needs more accurately and may feel more competent in your parental role. And they will feel less frustrated as they try to make their needs understood. Because young children often hit, kick, bite, or throw temper tantrums when frustrated, the lower frustration level generally results in reduced negative behavior. To summarize, better communication results in less frustration and acting out and, thus, less need to address negative behavior. When my son was being too rough, I would ask him to show me the sign for “gentle.” His ability to communicate allowed me to ask him to “use his words” whenever he would begin to get upset. Sign also calls attention to your important directives and helps you teach manners early. “Please” and “thank you” are easy signs to add after your child makes requests. Still another benefit: silent communication can be especially useful in church. And you can begin to teach an important spiritual concept: Jesus loves you.

Some people worry that sign will delay the development of spoken language. That has not been my experience. And research shows that children who sign speak as soon as or sooner than nonsigning children. Another common concern is that nonsigning alternate caregivers will not be able to communicate with your child. I have found that if you show caregivers a few signs, they do well. Because the child associates the sign with an outcome, they usually continue to attempt to get their needs met before getting upset. Besides, the caregiver will likely have at least as difficult of a time communicating with a preverbal child who doesn’t sign, and probably with a lot more crying.

At first the thought of teaching sign may seem to be a daunting task; however, most parents already teach some signs. When we coach our children to hold up their finger to show they are one year old or to wave to say “bye-­bye,” we are teaching them that gestures have meaning. Adding just a few signs will give children a useful vocabulary.

The children’s section of the local library will likely have resources to help you teach sign. The books use pictures of both babies and adults demonstrating the signs. Because babies are fascinated by other babies, the pictures will draw the interest of your child as they help you learn the signs. Most books about teaching sign recommend that you start demonstrating signs when your child shows interest in language by watching your mouth as you speak and by looking at the person who is speaking, which is usually when the child is six or seven months old. As they learn, many infants will modify the signs. You can keep doing the sign correctly or you can use your child’s modification. Either way, you will increase communication and decrease frustration.

How to Sign 'More,' 'Please,' and 'Thank you'

"More" - Tap fingertips together twice.

"Please" - Rub hand over chest in circular motion.

"Thank you" - Touch lips, then move hand out like blowing a kiss.

By Amy Wiedmann, from Parents Crosslink © 2014 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "Body language (photo 1)" by Lars Plougmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Amy Wiedmann is the clinical manager for a community mental health center in Danville, Illinois. She and her husband, Skot, are just beginning to teach sign language to their second son.

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