Baby sign language is a series of simple gestures, or signs, that parents and their little one use together to quickly and easily convey meaning. The signs are used before a baby can even talk, so it helps reduce the frustration associated with him not being understood. Most babies don’t begin to speak until well into their second or even third year and this can lead to frustration and tantrums. However, a baby who expects to be understood – and can be understood using sign language – is calmer in any situation. Imagine your baby could tell you he wanted his teddy, or more milk, or that he saw a plane! It is a lot of fun for both babies and their parents.
Baby sign language is very simple. Babies will have the gross motor skills from around six or seven months to make signs. Using ISL, Irish Sign Language, parents and their babies learn the signs for people, objects and emotions they will use every day. Parents are encouraged to start with just one or two signs and to use them consistently and in context. For example, every time you go for a drive you say the word ‘car’ as you sign it. “Does baby want to go out in the car?”, “You like the car, don’t you?”, “What a lovely red car!”. You are repeating the word and the sign, and baby quickly understands what the sign means. Then, after a while, he will be able to sign back.
Language follows movement and signing helps activate all the parts of the brain that are used in language acquisition. You are making it easier for babies to remember words and sounds by adding a kinesthetic and visual element to the aural and oral side of language. Babies naturally begin to gesture between 6 and 10 months old. For example, they point at an object of interest; they raise their hands when they want to be picked up; they wave hello and goodbye; and they nod and shake their heads. Teaching a baby to sign is simply extending their existing gestural vocabulary.
Baby sign language is most suitable for infants between the ages of 3 and 23 months old. They will begin to understand meaning at around 3 months old, and will begin to meaningfully communicate at around 6 months. Around this time the fine motor coordination necessary for signing develops too. Signing will take babies through those sometimes difficult first couple of years when they long to explore and communicate with the world, but are often scuppered by the inability to express themselves. As they begin to talk the signing drops away but, as outlined below, the benefits are long term. It has been shown that signing can be of great benefit to preschoolers and in the early school years too, helping develop early literacy and numeracy. Marilyn Daniels, a professor of speech communication indicates: “Sign language can be used to improve hearing children’s English vocabulary, reading ability, spelling proficiency, self esteem and comfort with expressing emotions.”
There are many advantages to using sign language with your baby. Here are just a few: Firstly it reduces the incidents of tantrums arising from frustration. Signing also encourages your baby to talk – you speak as you sign – and research shows that babies who sign tend to talk earlier than their non-signing counterparts.
It also creates a strong parent/child bond. When you spend time signing with your baby, you spend quality time speaking with them, making eye contact and, often, singing and saying rhymes. These fun activities for baby are crucial to their early development and will help their vocabulary, self-expression and confidence by providing them with a responsive and nurturing environment.
Research has shown that babies who learn to sign have a greater vocabulary at school-going age and a higher IQ at the age of eight.
Signing is great for emotional development too. When a baby can sign he is hot, cold, tired, calm, excited, hungry, sick, sad, happy etc. he is developing an awareness of his emotions, and a vocabulary with which to express them.
Teaching your baby to sign is fantastic for fine motor coordination – thus giving your little computer programmer/engineer/footballer/dancer/artist a head start in developing these crucial skills. In order to do all those clever things when your baby is older, she needs first to develop her hand to eye coordination and her spatial reasoning. Signing is a simple way to have your baby practice these skills every day from an early age.
Much as we adore our little darlings, those early days of being a parent can be draining. It seems like a continuous cycle of eat, poo, sleep…eat, poo, sleep… repeat. Why not break the monotony by communicating, and really connecting, with your baby before she can even speak? Imagine going to your 9 month old baby in the morning to pick her up out of the cot, only to see her sign ‘Mammy’ or ‘Daddy’. Now, if that doesn’t start your day with a smile, nothing will.
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