What you need to know:
- Teaching a baby sign language doesn’t mean they have a speech problem. Neither will it delay their development.
For young babies who cannot speak, crying is usually the mode of communication between them and their mothers.
But what if your eight or nine month old baby could actually tell you that she wants to suckle, or have his spoiled diaper changed or that she wants porridge instead of Weetabix without crying?
You may wonder how this is possible. According to child therapist Gloria Wandeto, it is possible to communicate with your baby by teaching him sign language from the infant age.
Babies grasp sign language from as early as six or seven months after birth.
“Babies are usually ready – physically and cognitively – to learn sign language and are able to sign back from around 7 months of age.”
Ann Mugure taught her daughter to communicate using sign language. “At first, I thought it was just a fun way of playing with her,” she says.
“Then I noticed that she used the simple signs to communicate back at me. She would wave to indicate ‘bye bye’, open her mouth to show that she needed more food when eating, or lift her arms to indicate that she wanted me to take her up. If I didn’t, she would immediately start crying.”
Ann’s daughter was 10 months old when she started learning sign language. However, some babies with developmental delay can take longer, but usually not past the 10-month age mark.
“Teaching your baby sign language makes it easier and possible to communicate months earlier than normal,” says Gloria. “It’s a fun way of bonding deeper with your baby.”
Pamela Awuor, a mother of two, began teaching her firstborn daughter sign language by showing her the sign ‘drink’.
She says that she had read somewhere that signs worked well with children and was just trying out.
“She didn’t seem to understand it and so I quit training her. Then after some weeks, she looked up at me in the house and put her thumb to her mouth, tilting up (the sign of drink). She began to cry when I failed to respond but once I gave her the milk-bottle, she stopped crying,” says Pamela, who is now training her 10-month-old son Paul.
Some mothers oppose use of sign language because to them, it is a learning script for those that have hearing or speech impairment.
There are also mothers who fear that they will delay their babies’ speech development and comprehension by teaching them how to use sign language.
But Gloria says that teaching a baby sign language doesn’t mean they have a speech problem. Neither will it delay their development.
On the contrary, children who learn sign language are usually more verbally expressive at age two than those who don’t.
They also tend to have a higher IQ than those who have never learned sign language.
“Babies love to mimic and most of them actually learn – by themselves – how to wave and point long before they can say 'bye bye' or 'look at that!'" she says.
She adds that teaching your baby sign language should be woven into your daily routine. You can also learn it yourself as you teach your baby.
“Begin [with] simple, need-based and commonly-used words and phrases.” These include words such as diaper, milk, eat or even play.
How to do it
According to Gloria, when teaching your baby:
- Always pair your gestures with words. Remember, sign language should complement the development of the baby’s spoken words.
- Learn to praise and have an affirmative demeanour around your baby. By doing this, you’ll effectively transfer the excitement to your baby, making him or her even more enthusiastic about learning.
- Do not overload your baby with multiple signs. Stick to one set. Once your baby has learned to one sign, gradually move on to the next. “Start the learning process again until she grasps the new sign,” says Gloria. “But do not make the mistake of [not practising] the first sign, lest your baby forgets it. Use it frequently.” Similarly, use the sign every time you do the activity associated with it. For instance, you may show your baby the sign when doing the related activity such as feeding or changing diapers.
- Be flexible and accommodating. Once your baby begins to learn, they will at times invent their own signs to communicate with you. For instance, if the baby observes that when lifting her up she first lifts her arms upwards, she may make this a sign to indicate that she wants you to lift her. Be appreciative of this and respond to it positively.
Try these tips too:
Keep in mind that your baby will require patience before she can master sign language.
Resist the urge to force, and instead teach the baby at their own pace. “She/he will begin trying the signs herself after a few days. In some cases, [the baby] may take several weeks [to learn],” says Gloria.
She advises that you make the learning process as much fun as possible. “Your baby will be more likely to learn from the things [they] enjoys most.”
When teaching your baby how to communicate using sign language, always remember that any gesture that mimics the true meaning of the word will be more effective and easier for them to learn and adopt.
For instance, according to Gloria, some of the gestures you could use include:
- Food – if you want to talk about food to your child, put your fingertips to your lips. Repeat this as often as possible when talking about food to avoid creating confusion.
- All gone or I don’t have – in this gesture, you should move your hand, palm up, backward and forward.
- Scared – to show your baby that you are scared, continuously tap your chest.
- Hot – to show him or her that something is hot and dangerous, put your hand out and withdraw it quickly. You may consider including the term ‘phew’, to indicate how hot it is.
- Where? – to indicate or ask ‘where?’, shrug your shoulders continuously, with your palms held out.