I love infant development, and excelled in this area at university. The whole thing fascinates me. And I took a special focus in babies and language in my final year at school. And here’s what I can tell you: you cannot speed it up. You cannot teach a baby to speak before they are ready to speak. All those flashcards, baby Einstein DVDs and teaching aides will not get a baby to talk until that baby is developmentally ready to talk. And it hinges on a couple things, but mostly it’s about brain maturity and the physical development and location of vocal cords, and really the entire vocal system.
12 month old babies are excellent communicators if you tap in and ‘listen’ to them. They point, they yell, they whine, they reach up towards a caregiver, they use facial expressions. They do all these things to tell you what they want and how they are feeling. But they can’t verbally say “hey, I’m thirsty”. They can only complain and complain to tell you that they have a problem until you guess what it is.
Imagine if you had to communicate like that. Imagine if you had to whine and yell because you needed your cup of water and nobody was understanding you. That sounds frustrating.
Enter baby sign. We have taught all three of our kids to sign, and it has been amazing. They are talking to us before they are really talking to us they can tell us that they are hurt, or hungry, or want apples and cheese for snack. We have had conversations about birds and dogs and lions, without them using a spoken word. My 12-month old cannot verbally say “hey, I’m thirsty” but she does sign “milk” to let me know the same thing. She can’t verbally say “I’m full, no more food” at lunch time, but she can sign “all done” and I know to wipe her up and get her out of the high chair before she starts to throw food on the floor. She can’t say “look mom! A cat!” with words. But she can do it with signs. She can tell me that she wants more of my smoothie, that she needs more water in her cup, and that she wants to play more peek-a-boo using the sign for “more”. When she fell down last week and bumped her head, she signed “all done” to tell us that she didn’t want to do that again. She was all done with falling over! No more falling over! She used “all done” the other day to tell her dad that she wasn’t interested in napping right now. My first daughter used ‘all done’ to tell the doctor to not give her another needle at her 12-month vaccine visit.
Straight up – baby sign is awesome. Baby sign has been proven, over and over again, to reduce tantrums and crying, to reduce both parent/caregiver and baby frustration, and to improve the parent-child relationship. (This is a no brainer. Being able to feel understood improves anybody’s relationship)
As an offshoot – get this – babies who learned to use signs speak slightly earlier than non-signing babies. Remember I said there’s nothing you can do to speed up spoken language? Well you aren’t getting your 6-month old to speak, but you may have a baby who speaks just slightly earlier than they otherwise would have. And that baby will typically learn more words faster than babies who weren’t taught to sign. The reasons as to why this happens re still being researched, but the results are real.
So, when do we start? Well there’s no hard and fast rule. You can start to sign to a baby as soon as you want. Start the day they are born if you wish! But they can’t really see your hands and they aren’t sure that they are a separate entity, so I think it would mostly be a waste of effort. A lot of experts say you can start to sign at them, and they will pay attention (which is key, really) at around 4-6 months. But don’t expect them to answer back for a while. A baby who doesn’t know they have hands can’t use their hands to communicate back to you.
I say start when you start solids foods. A baby by this point can sit up mostly unassisted, is aware of their hands, and is probably starting to use them to hold or reach for toys, spoons, faces, whatever. They are getting control of their body and they are starting to be able to make it do what they want. Also, starting at solid foods means that you can introduce your first few signs at meal times – all done and more are a great two to begin with. At meal times, babies are focused and engaged with the act of eating, and you are having a two-way communication where they are tuned in. Start small and work up, adding in signs as you find you need them. Only use the signs that make sense for you to be using - some people teach a sign for bottle because they use bottles, some don’t. You don’t need to teach the sign for “dad” if there’s no dad-figure present. Pick the signs that will benefit your family.
Have fun! Make up your own games with signs, make up your own songs with signs, use your signs every day and make a habit of including them in your routine, and pretty soon baby will be signing right back at you, and you will be blown away by how much communication happens once you give them an outlet and a tool to ‘talk’ with you.
Kyla graduated with both a degree in Early Childhood Studies and a Diploma in Early Childhood Education from the University of Guelph-Humber. She teaches Baby Sign classes privately, email us for details. She is a Full-Spectrum Doula at Sisterhood Wellness Collective.