Why Sign With Your Child

By Lisa Hopen

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Why sign with your child? Imagine waking from a sound sleep. Walking into your child’s room as she stands in her crib crying. Is she hungry? Wet? In pain? You quickly evaluate her needs to no avail. She is unable to express her concerns to you. You feel helpless. >

Now imagine for a moment as you walk through the door and sweep your child into your arms, she signs “juice”. You give her a cup of juice as she smiles at you in appreciation. You kiss her and put her back to bed. What a success! She was able to communicate her needs to you and you were able to satisfy them.

Shortly after birth, infants are equipped with the ability to comprehend language. However, they usually are not able to produce speech until after 12 to 24 months of age. As parents, we are left to wonder what is going on inside their little heads as we wait in anticipation for their first words. While their articulators (mouth, lips, tongue, teeth) are slowly maturing, they are quickly mastering their manual dexterity (ability to manipulate objects with their hands). By teaching your child gestures or signs as well as spoken words, they are more quickly able to understand and communicate with the world around them.

In the last few years research has been conducted to show the benefits of signing to your pre-verbal child. In the mid 1990’s it was revealed that, contrary to belief, signing does not deter or delay your child from speaking. It actually encourages earlier communication. Sign enables a child to be an active communicator at a much earlier age. He can initiate communication exchanges instead of being a passive observer. Additionally, researchers at the University of California have linked infant sign to a boost in IQ scores. They discovered a 12-point gap between a group of second-graders who had been trained to sign as babies and group that had not.

I have been signing with my daughter since she was 6 months old. Infant signing has opened her thoughts to me. Thoughts that she would not have been able to share until she was much older. When we go for walks together, she points out all of the wonderful things she is seeing. The birds, butterflies, flowers. When her grandmother visits she is able to quickly catch up on Anna’s new signs and communicate with her. This alleviates the fear and frustration that usually arises when a child is left with a caregiver. It instills trust when a child realizes that the person caring for her is able to understand and satisfy her needs. We have taught everyone who enters her life this special language. Her aunts, uncles, cousins. It has created a unique bond for our entire family.

The good news is that infant sign is easy! You do not have to enroll in a course or be certified in American Sign Language (ASL). Start out with the simple signs illustrated below. Watch your child to discover his interests. Does he have a fascination with airplanes, elephants, fire trucks? Go to your local library or bookstore and look up these signs or make them up on your own. The purpose is not for your child to be certified in ASL but for you to be able to communicate with each other.

When signing with your child keep these points in mind:

  • Always pair the spoken word with the gesture.

  • Be patient. (It usually takes several months for infants to produce their first sign)

  • Share the child’s signs with family members and caregivers.

  • Follow your child’s lead.

  • Be creative. (Make up your own special signs)

  • Start simple. (More, Milk, Finished)

  • Always praise your child’s attempts.