Babies have two natural means of communication: body language, and crying. As you can see from this list of newborn behavioral cues, a lot of baby communication looks pretty much identical – is he crying because he’s hungry, or because he’s tired, or because his diaper is wet, or because he’s craving a snuggle, or because he’s got colic, or because he’s frustrated because you can’t tell what he’s crying about?
Since your child’s receptive language skills will outpace his ability to express language aloud, teaching him some basic signs can help you understand your child’s needs, and can be a fun bonding exercise, too. WebMD suggests starting to teach your baby signs at about 6 months, although they’re unlikely to be able to sign back at you until they hit about 8 months, when they’re more coordinated. Here are some of WebMD’s guidelines:
- Teach signs for practical words like more, mommy, nap, diaper, and done.
- Practice regularly to help your baby remember the signs.
- Keep talking to your baby so his speech isn’t delayed.
- Ask your partner and other caregivers to use the signs that you’ve taught your baby so they’ll understand what he wants.
- If baby sign language frustrates you or your baby, stop. It should improve communication, not cause additional stress.
As you’ll see from this list of first signs, most of the signs that are relevant to your baby are pretty intuitive: “eat” is like putting food in your mouth, “dog” is like tapping your thigh to call the dog over, and so on.
Can teaching your baby sign language contribute to speech delays? The studies say no: communication through gesture is, after all, still communication, and experts say that proper use of gestures by babies are a good indicator of future language development. Teaching gestures also is associated with good outcomes, which is not surprising, given that it helps you get attuned to the meaning of your child’s nonverbal cues. Lauren Lowry at the Hanen Centre writes, regarding a study of baby sign language,
“Signing mothers were more responsive to their babies’ nonverbal cues (such as noticing changes in the direction of their infants’ gaze, and their infants’ actions with objects). They also encouraged more independent action by their babies (such as encouraging the baby to go and get a ball while gesturing and saying “you get the ball”). The authors explained that using signs may have changed the mothers’ perception of their infants, and encouraged them to notice their babies’ nonverbal attempts at communication.”
So basically: even if your child doesn’t learn to sign meaningfully, teaching your baby sign language may help you learn to decode your baby’s behavior. It may also help your child learn spoken words, since signing parents tend to narrate what their child is signing (“You want some more juice? I’ll go fill your sippy cup”), thus reinforcing their understanding of spoken language and encouraging them to try it out too.
This page has some more useful signs to try, with some very cute illustrations. The takehome message from all of these experts is: be consistent with your use of signs, be patient, and keep talking. More communication adds up to more learning, and soon enough, your kid will be chattering like a pro!