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  • Writer's pictureAlley Dezenhouse Kelner

Sign to me, Baby!

As a new mom who happens to work in the field of child development I had a plan from get-go about sparking development. I had all these grand plans about how I’d be as a mom. The truth though? I was a worried my child would be an unruly-unmanageable-cyclone of chaos and all I’d be able to say would be...well, you heard about the shoe-maker’s kids who had no shoes, right?!

Despite my obvious anxiety, I had some great successes (and some mommy-fail moments). I had success, for example, teaching my daughter to sign from about 6 months onward. My plan is to outline how I did it, what worked, and how you can do it too! My background in child development certainly helped, but I didn’t use any magic that you can’t also apply in your own home!

First—a word of caution: At 6 months when I excitedly told my family I was teaching my daughter baby sign they literally gasped. But, how will she learn speech? You want her to sign instead of talk? Don’t you think sign will delay her speaking?

I put those misnomers to rest; I cited research, anecdotal experience and anything I could to make a case for teaching early communication. From a clinical perspective, you only risk delaying speech with the use of sign if you don’t actively pair (associate) the sign with a speech word (and even then, in most situations, it’s not going to delay speech). When you pair the sign with the word you achieve something called “stimulus stimulus pairing” which is a fancy way of saying associated meaning between the sign/gesture and the spoken word. Even more so, you actively teach WHY communication is so important and set your child up to communicate effectively from a very young age.

By teaching sign early we focus on hammering in the idea that communication is a useful tool. Communication helps a baby, or adult, get what they want when they want it. The capacity to want happens from day one. Babies use basic means to communicate; they cry, they reach, they suck. When an action works at getting something desired it gets stored in their memory bank (again because of its associated meaning) and called upon next time they want that same thing.

Now don’t get me wrong, these associations don’t happen overnight. But, as soon as a pattern is established—baby thinks “AHHH so that’s how this communication thing works.” And suddenly, crying is reduced and replaced with specific requests for what is desired. It’s really quite amazing.

Side note: I’ve done a video on how I taught my daughter to speak, which was after she had a basic sign repertoire, you can see that video here:

So back to baby signing!

Here is how the process goes.

1. Select a few baby signs.

I have read a lot about this and my professional (and personal) opinion is that you ALWAYS begin with a sign that represents something that the baby wants. 9 times out of 10, this means you are teaching a (somewhat) specific sign for SOMETHING (banana, milk, cookie, etc.)

You want to work really hard at the beginning to acquire the associative meaning between the sign, and what it means. Because of this, I don’t entirely agree with some experts who say teaching “mom” or “dad” is a good first sign. (Though I am sure they have their own sound reasoning).

Say you teach “mom” (because let’s face it, who doesn’t want to hear/see their little nugget call them?) you run into a small issue. You can work hard to sign “mom” whenever your baby is around but you run the risk of your baby being unclear about what exactly “mom” is. You can’t give your baby “mom”. You likely have other things on you, maybe you’re wearing clothes? Does your baby think your shirt is called mom? You likely have a bottle or are breast feeding, so maybe the bottle/breast is called mom? What IS mom anyway? It’s a bit abstract, especially for a first crack at sign.

Now consider you decide to teach a sign like “more”. Again, “more” might seem equally hard to qualify. What is “more”? It’s not something, but rather continuation of something. It’s a good place to start with signs because it has wide meaning. You can sign “more” milk, “more” tickles, “more” kisses, “more” songs, “more” get the idea. This is often a successful first sign because it’s highly useful for the baby.

It should be noted though; “more” only makes sense as a request if something was already offered. Eventually you will reach a point where your babe wants to request spontaneously (i.e. without having already been offered something). At this point, you will see “more” is requested out of context. Your baby might sign “more” as he looks at the TV, “more” as she points to your breast. If you’re seeing this, you know it’s time to begin teaching specific requests like the sign for the exact items your baby is likely to want (however, at this time your baby might be able to put word sounds together, so you may move onto speech. Depends on how quickly the timeline occurs!)

Side note--In a clinical setting with kids with special needs (specifically Autism) I hesitate to teach “more” as a first request because it’s nonspecific and can be over used. The very reason it’s good for typically developing kids, is why it’s challenging for kids with Autism who by nature struggle with generalization (or skill transference). For kids with communication delays (like Autism) I wouldn’t recommend more as a first sign, but for the rest of the population it’s a good place to start. If your babe has Autism or has red flags for communication delay, go with a specific sign for a desired item maybe “Cheerio” and use the same procedure as described here.

2. You begin by teaching your baby sign language as an “elicited request”.

At the beginning you assume your baby won’t request (beyond the usual baby requesting patterns like crying, reaching, etc.) unless you elicit it. “Eliciting it” means setting up the situation in which you actively teach how to request with sign.

You sit your little one down (you want them focused) and offer a Cheerio non-contingently (i.e. without requiring any sign/reach/grab at all). Once the baby eats the Cheerio you might begin by....

- Providing a Cheerio as you sign and say “more” You’ll be at this step for quite a while until your little one sees the patterns and builds the associative meaning. Once you feel that your little one understands the process (i.e. more gets me another), you will move to the next step.

-Showing the Cheerio, signing as you say “more” and then pausing (waiting and hoping for the baby to sign). At this stage you’re going to have to prompt. You can gently move your baby’s hands for them and show them how to do the sign as you repeat “more”. Immediately after the baby signs you offer the Cheerio. This stage too, will last a while. After a few rounds of this (it can takes days, or weeks), your baby will begin to understand how to make his or her hands sign without you; that’s why the pause is important after demonstrating the sign as you say it. You may notice a close version of the sign that doesn’t look as precise. If you see this, celebrate and of course give access to a Cheerio (or a few!). Take this as a cue that you can reduce your prompting of the sign (they get the idea just need help on execution). Fine motor movements take a while to perfect but you’ll be assured your kiddo is getting it. Keep modeling the exact sign and praising the effort.

Why shouldn’t you worry if the sign isn’t exactly right at first? Your baby is likely using sign with you and maybe a few others who are well versed in baby sign. It’s not like they are going into the world alone and signing to a cashier. As long as I understand it, I’m pretty happy with that. Think of how speech develops; if your child requested “chee chee” instead of Cheerio you’d keep calling it a Cheerio, but it’s an obvious step towards success!

-After your baby knows what’s at stake, i.e. has had a few cheerios (or whatever else you’re using) you simply hold up the Cheerio and say “what do you want?”

At this stage your baby may need some prompting at first, if so you can say “more” and wait for them to sign. If they don’t, you can show the sign while also saying “more”. If they still don’t sign, prompt as usual. After some time your cue “what do you want?” will be enough for the baby to sign “more”. When you get a reliable response, move on to the next step: spontaneous signing!

3. Teaching the (kind of) spontaneous request using baby sign language.

Finally you’re near the end! At this point, I’m assuming your baby knows what you have to offer (i.e. can see the cheerios and has had one—this is important because “more” is an out of context request if you haven’t already had some).

That’s why this is a “kind of” spontaneous request; it’s not truly spontaneous because you’ve already offered a Cheerio. If it was truly spontaneous, the baby would have to find the box of Cheerios in the cupboard, bring it to you and say “more”. This is not realistic for a 6 month old but maybe you’ve started signing a little later and it’s realistic at whatever age you’re at.

Now, you simply withhold the Cheerio (after one is given, and consumed) and wait without saying anything for a spontaneous request.

If your baby holds out, go back a step and say “what do you want?” You will find that you cycle through these steps quickly as the message of “what sign gets me” becomes clear. As you teach your first sign you will likely linger at each step, but once baby has a repertoire of a few signs this will go really fast.

I know it’s a lot. Read it a few times, let it sink in and COMMENT if you have questions! I’m telling you what worked for me and it’s based on teaching principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis that breaks learning down into smaller components. There are probably other ways to do it, and I’d be happy to link to any other resources you’ve found helpful!

The process looks the same no matter what sign you’re teaching. As your baby “gets the idea” you can move to specific items like requesting “milk” “tickles” “hugs” “kiss” “cookie” whatever is highly motivating for your baby. Avoid signs that are likely not to be motivating because it will be an uphill battle. It would be like trying to get me to request “overtime” at work. It’s just not going to happen!

Here are the baby signs I taught my daughter, by the time I got to the end of this list she was putting sounds together and I started focusing on word combinations for specific items.

-More -All Done -Drink (for her this meant from a bottle not breast feeding) -Milk (for her this meant breast feeding)


Did you try baby sign language?

I'd love to hear about your experience!

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