Dating back to the 19th century, linguist, professor at Yale and writer for the Webster’s English Dictionary, William Dwight Whitney, observed children of deaf parents beginning to sign as young as 6 months of age while still maintaining typical verbal language acquisition. Therefore, these children were noted to communicate younger than children of hearing parents and still began speaking according to typical developmental milestones. Whitney discovered that signing allows for earlier communicative abilities and ultimately facilitates verbal language.

You can technically begin modeling baby signing as early as birth; however, underlying comprehension for signs, long-term memory for words and their referents, as well as adequate motor coordination emerge at about 6 months of age. Nevertheless, I recommend starting with baby sign as early as possible so as to expose your baby to gestural communication prior to its emergence, just as you would expose your baby to spoken language well before he/she is capable of verbalizing.

Each infant varies in his/her development of the ability to sign based on his/her specific developmental trajectories, with age and amount of exposure being huge factors. Your baby will not be able to sign prior to being able to focus on hand movement (joint attention) and having the cognitive capability of matching a sign to it’s referent (symbolism). Seeing as these two prerequisites emerge around 6 months of age, I certainly would not expect a baby to sign any earlier. All in all, it is important to be patient with your infant and diligent about your signing routines.

There is no prescribed amount of time to sign with your baby. You must imbed signing into your and your baby’s daily routines, such as all three meals, playtime, bath time and so on and so forth. Your baby should be expected to communicate his/her wants and needs in order to have them fulfilled, that is why it is important to start with requesting. Requiring that your baby learn to sign EAT, MILK, GIVE ME, etc. to request might add more time to your daily routines at first, but it will eventually become effortless and instinctual.

Teaching your baby to sign has many benefits, including:

  • Reduced baby distress due to his/her ability to communicate
  • Reduced crying and tantrums
  • Mothers who are more “tuned in” due to increased self-confidence
  • Improved parent-child communication
  • Strengthened parent-child bond
  • Increased joint attention and engagement in two-way conversation
  • Advanced comprehension
  • Larger expressive and receptive oral language vocabularies
  • Enhanced literacy if signing is paired with reading
  • And, even the potential for a later IQ advantage (*needs more definitive research)

Firstly, baby sign is not a language, rather a method of introducing communication to babies. Languages have complex grammatical systems, which baby signing lacks seeing as its purpose is basic communication prior to the emergence of verbal language. Secondly, there is not a universal sign language used by deaf individuals around the world. There are approximately 300 different sign languages, including American Sign Language, British Sign Language and Nicaraguan Sign Language to name a few.

You should use signs from any sign system that you would like, or you can use improvised signs. Improvised signs are home signs. It is not only okay to create your own signs, but it is recommended. Often babies will use their own gestures to communicate their wants and needs, such as putting their hands above their heads to be picked up or rubbing their eyes when it is time for bed. These gestures are not coincidental and are readily available tools for communication…Use them! Whichever signs or sign systems you decide upon, make sure to be consistent and always to use the same sign/referent combinations.

A single sign should be paired with a single referent regardless of the parents’ spoken language(s). That is, it is not necessary to use multiple signs to indicate the same items/referents just because there is more than one language spoken in your household. Remember, baby signing is meant to teach communicative function. It is not a sign language with a complex grammatical structure, but rather a symbolic means of basic communication prior to the onset of speaking. Pair the sign with the word in both (or all) languages spoken by the family to promote bi/multilingual language development.

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