Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Baby Signing

There are tons of books on baby signing available, as well as lots of information on the internet. I read or scanned probably at least 20 books (which does include some board books) when Vivi was a baby, when we were pretty decided we wanted to plunge. Some of them were particularly helpful, but it’s certainly not necessary to read very much, because signing with your baby is so simple. It isn’t a complicated science or anything that requires a thorough education. I also really enjoyed the scientific aspect- reading about research and the benefits of signing. For the most part, I’m not going to get into those right now, other than touching on some of the aspects that were our main reason for choosing to sign.

I can’t speak from someone who’s thoroughly through it- someone who has 3 children, all great, early talkers. Vivi being only a year, we’re still in the early part of the process. But we have seen some huge benefits in our family already, as well as ways it has specifically and tangibly helped Vivi. So mostly, I’m just going to share how we’ve been blessed.

In a nutshell, these are some of the biggest points we decided to follow in baby signing, which are considered musts in most baby signing books. Pick just a few (3 or so) signs to start with, and consistently sign those. Sign them when you’re getting ready for the activity (or whatever it is), when you’re doing it multiple times, etc. Really connect the sign with the object/activity. For example: for teaching “eat”, we might show Vivi her high chair with food ready on it, and ask her if she wants to eat (sign, too), then we put her in and say, “Yeah, we’re eating!”…and we would comment about eating a handful of times throughout the meal. Make sure you say the word along with signing. You want them to be able to connect signs with speaking, since with a “normal” (hearing) baby, signing will eventually switch over to talking- or at least include talking, depending on your final goals. Some families like to continue signing and use baby signing as a base for expanding and learning more. We’re hoping to go this route, and encourage our older children to still sign- so long as I can keep up! Never, ever withhold something because a baby doesn’t sign it back to you. It might take a while before baby starts signing, and if you start very young, it could take months. Even after they start signing, they may or may not always sign it back to you. Signing is not something that gets disciplined- it’s a tool to communicate. Get excited with them when they sign- babies love being clapped for! If baby isn’t repeating the sign “correctly”, continue to model it accurately for them, but don’t correct their signs. Eventually, just through seeing you, they’ll perfect theirs. Several of Vivi’s signs have already moved through multiple levels of accuracy as she tries to copy me. And lastly, have fun!

As parents that believe treating children like people is of utmost importance, communicating with our children is very important to us. We believe that what children have to say is just as important and attention-worthy as anyone else. But it can be hard with a 10 month old, or even an 18 month old. Some children even don’t start talking well and clearly till they’re 2 or older. And this can lead to a lot of frustration- especially on the part of the child, but also for the parent. So baby signing appealed to us instantly. It seemed like a great idea to have a tool we could use to communicate with our babies at so young an age. It totally fits with me to find a way that Vivi can communicate her needs, wants, thoughts, desires, excitement, etc., with me. We love sharing life, and communication is a huge part of that. It’s so much fun having mutual communication as a part of our sharing life, now! Each stage has so many special aspects, and it’s definitely exciting to be able to communicate so much with Vivi.

We signed sporadically throughout Vivi’s babyhood, but didn’t get serious about it till she started tantruming a lot, all of a sudden. Thinking through the various possibilities and causes of the tantrums (because she never has before, and she was well-rested when she started down that path), we considered frustration with not being able to communicate. That was our kick into consistent signing. We chose to start with eat, play and light. We chose eat and play because they’re large parts of her day, and also needs/desires we thought her likely to communicate. We chose light as a fun one, because Vivi has always been really fascinated by lights. Sure enough, she loves telling us about every light she sees now! Since then, we’ve added all done, drink, outside and potty (because, yes, signing has even led to some beginning potty training :-)). It doesn’t matter what signs you start with; just pick ones that are relevant to you and your baby. Once Vivi masters a sign (I don’t know what “technically” qualifies, but we’re going with, once she signs it without any prompting, to communicate something), we start a new one. The rate at which she picks up signs is getting faster, although some take longer than others- and there are some signs she’s been signing back at me for at least a couple weeks, but which she still hasn’t started signing of her own accord yet. Most babies eventually get to a rate of one new sign a day, and though we haven’t yet, I suspect we will. Vivi loves having the ability to communicate with us, and gets really excited when she can use a sign to communicate, and we understand.

To get back to the tantrums- they’re gone. Just like that. She still has an occasional one over something- like when she’s exhausted and I’m trying to get her to sleep and she’d rather not be laying there. But for the most part, it seems all she needed was peaceful methods of communication. I’m sure as she gets older, and into more trouble, we’ll have some tantrum issues along the way, when she can’t have things she wants. But for now, it enables us to communicate which eliminates a large source of tantrums.

The first time she signed of her own accord, she was in the middle of a tantrum. It was a few days, or maybe even a week or two, after we started signing consistently. Ben was holding her, and she was perfectly happy, while I got dinner ready. Neither of us caught the connection till after the fact, but she started throwing a fit when I started cutting up food on her tray. Ben asked her what she wanted and told her that she didn’t have to scream. She seemed to think for a moment, then signed eat. Ben responded to her, acknowledging the need, and she was perfectly happy. Outside of tantrums motivated by severe tiredness, I think that was about the last one she had.

It makes me so happy to have a way to communicate with Vivi, so that she doesn’t get frustrated. It’s so fun to see how excited she was when she first realized she could use signing to tell us what she needs. It’s also helped eliminate some impatience issues we were having….like when I’d put her in her high chair while I was still cutting up her food, thus not having it all ready. I’m not sure why she stopped being so impatient, but I wonder if it’s because she’s fully confident now that I do know what she needs and understand her, and therefore will meet those needs. It’s really special to be able to communicate with Vivi even though she doesn’t have the coordination to speak in clear words yet…and it makes life happier and easier for all of us.

All that makes me wonder how many babies get spanked or otherwise punished for throwing fits that could easily be stopped just through a parent taking the time to teach them to communicate in a way that works for the baby. And it’s kind of scary to wonder how close we were to being one of those discipline-happy parents. I’m just grateful God spared us from that direction, and has given us the tools to teach Vivi how to communicate peacefully.

All that to say….we’re enjoying both our signing journey, and the fruit of it! If you try it with your little ones, I hope you’re as blessed as we’ve been!


  1. If you would like to continue signing as they grow up, I would suggest getting involved with the deaf community. My sis is learning to be an ASL interpreter, and had been encouraging me to go to deaf events and bring my girls so we can all learn to sign.

    I've used baby sign with all of my children, but I don't know that they talked sooner (or later) because of it. I started at 8-9 months with each of them, but none of them started to form the signs themselves until about 12 months. Except for the last, they have all stopped signing when they started talking. The last has been spoken to in sign (by my sis) since birth, and understands more than the others.

  2. Getting involved in our local deaf community is definitely something we would be interested in, if we do continue to work on signing as a family. One of the bigger objectives to continuing to learn signing as a family (beyond baby signing, and aside from those reasons) would be to be able to reach out into more avenues, although we have no idea what God might have there! :-)

    That's neat that you've been able to use signing with all of yours thus far- did/do any of them use it with their non-talking sibling(s)?

  3. Interesting post. We specifically decided not to sign with Cedar because we've seen kids who have ended up talking later because they relied so much on signing to communicate that they didn't bother with talking. Therefore we emphasize talking with Cedar and have been able to communicate quite well through his attempts at words. :)

  4. Speech pathologists often use sign to help non-verbal children learn to communicate, because communication is so much more than just spoken words. Some normal children have delayed speech whether or not they use sign. I've seen both. I've also seen children speak early whether or not they sign. IMO, signing is a great tool, but if you succeed at communicating with a non-verbal child without it, great! Communication is the goal, after all.

    Brianna, they would encourage the non-talking sibling to sign, and demonstrate the sign. Such as "Do you want 'more' or are you 'finished'"? As far as "mastering" a sign, I think you have the right idea. Babies don't have the manual dexterity to sign "correctly". My sis said that a deaf baby's babble is playing around with hand shapes and movements. Like the early speech of hearing children, often the parents are the only ones who understand early signing.

  5. That's great that Cedar's such an early talker and doesn't need other props to help him communicate and avoid frustration. At 10 months, Vivi wasn't ready to make words with her talking- she talks a ton, there just aren't very many words in her vocabulary- mostly mama/dada, and lots of babble.

    That's pretty interesting as far as the people you know... I would be curious, as Rachel mentioned, if they just were late talkers, or if the signing did cause it. I've wondered before if there are children you talk later b/c of signing (b/c you mostly just read success stories)...I don't personally know any families/babies that use sign, other than a couple families that use one or two, so we don't have much to go by. :-) I do know some little ones that would've benefited SO much from signing, particularly b/c of being late talkers. One was my brother, who's 5 now. It often got frustrating trying to figure out what he wanted; he didn't really start talking till around 2- my sister, 20 months younger than him, started talking before/around the same time as him, and more clearly- she still talks more clearly. In his case, it's clearly just a situation with his own "problem", rather than caused by something environmental, so signing would've been really nice for 2 or 3 years.

    While it hasn't been an "issue" for her to any great degree, I was thinking this weekend while with my 1 year old sister that signing would be nice for her. I think living with a signing baby and then working with non-signing has made me all the more aware of just how much it's helped us. :-) When she was fussy, and it took a bit to figure out what she wanted, I was thinking it'd be so nice if she could just, for instance, sign eat.

    Anyway- I guess we'll see what happens. I'm sure there are some kids who don't do well with it, and there are probably plenty of situations where it isn't used "correctly", which could cause problems. For Vivi, at least, I don't see it being a problem, because she loves to talk (and she always babbles in excitement when she signs), and I talk to her ALL day long. When we're in the kitchen, I explain everything we're doing, how I'm measuring, etc., etc., when we're outside we talk about everything we see... So she's not short on hearing words! :-)

    Anyway, it's all rather fascinating....and like Rachel said, communication with your infant is the biggest goal, so if you can do that at such a young age as to avoid frustration just with talking, then there isn't really a need for signing. Signing's just a tool...and it seems like it's a tool that would work well if used correctly.

    Part of what makes me wonder how often signing causes kids to be later talkers is just logic- signing's kind of inconvenient. You can't have anything in your hands, you have to be right in front of the person, etc. And grown ups talk...so it seems like there'd be a desire to be like the parents?

    Have a great day, ladies! Thanks for sharing, Jessica...I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the other side, like I said, not personally knowing people that either do it, or are opposed to it.

  6. I guess I should have clarified...I can't say that I know for SURE that these kids talked later because of signing...it just seemed like it to me. So I could be totally off... :P :) And it's funny...even though we specifically didn't teach Cedar to sign, he ended up making up his own signs for some things and we've used those to communicate along with words. :)

  7. Yeah, well that's the hard thing about humans...cause and effect can be pretty vague/difficult to diagnose. In some cases, it seems fairly obvious, certainly there are things I see in people that I feel convinced are the result of ___. But even there, you probably can't say for sure, and often, there are so many factors, it's just hard to say.

    Like researching CIO- I'd like to say science totally supports my views on CIO, but the simple fact of the matter is that there are so many factors that play into a person's life. How can I know that it's because of CIO that a person grew up to be depressed/emotionally withdrawn? There are so many other factors in their life...

    Or, a lot of people probably think Vivi *still* doesn't crawl/walk because I wear/carry her so much. Since we humans tend to see what's around us and base our opinions on that, a lot of people could say b'wearing is unhealthy for a baby's development b/c of Vivi's lack of movement. However, what they might not know is that Vivi just isn't a mover...she hardly moved in my womb, it's always been that way. :-) (she kicked a lot- she was born a stretcher! :-)) Vivi is very strong and developmentally in the game as far as that goes...but she isn't motivated to move.

    Anyway...people are just too interesting to be able to box them in! :-)