Baby “sign language”: the other imitation game

The world runs on communication, but when you’re a new baby with developing vocal cords, your options are pretty limited. The average baby begins expressing simple words at 9 or 10 months, but forming sentences other people can understand can take more than a year, or even two! So what’s a hungry baby to do when it’s time for lunch, a diaper change, or if they simply want to say, “I love you?” Enter what some people call “baby sign language.” Using simple hand gestures, babies can express needs or emotions. These gestures may be connected to American Sign Language or other sign languages, or may be a more improvised way for babies to use specific gestures to communicate. Whether a family bases their gestures on an official sign language or makes up their own, using gestures to communicate can help babies express themselves earlier than their vocal cords are ready.

When should I start?

Most babies begin to try for some basic communication around 8 to 9 months, though there have been exceptions where babies as young as 6 months old have successfully learned sign language. Watch Baby for signs of sociability such as acting friendly when near others and making sounds to grab your attention. The earlier you start signing to Baby as you talk to him, though, the better the signs will stick in his mind, and the easier they’ll be for him to learn when the time comes.

Where do I start?

Choosing the very first signs to teach Baby might seem like a weighty decision, especially because there’s no “official” baby sign language guide to follow. The best approach is to keep things as simple as possible. Start with the most basic functions such as “eat” (maybe by touching your fingertips to your lips), “sleep” (closing your eyes and smiling), or “help” (tapping both hands on your chest). From there, the two of you can progress to more creative and abstract signs. Baby learns from watching you, and baby sign language is no different. If you incorporate baby sign language into the way you already talk to him, he will start to associate the signs with communication fairly quickly, and will be delighted to find that simple gestures are a form of communication that he can participate in easily!

What if my baby struggles?

Whether you’re a newborn or an adult, learning any new language can be difficult, so try not to worry if Baby takes a week or two, or even longer, if you start earlier, to get the swing of things. In fact, most babies need at least a few weeks of practice to become skilled signers. But once that magical moment of successful signing between you and Baby happens, odds are that he will ride that mutual wave of joy and excitement to stronger (and faster) sign language retention.

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