Unlike many aspects of my accidental parenting journey, signing was something I knew I wanted to do with my children before I was ever even pregnant. When my husband and I were in graduate school in Northern California, we used to wake up early on Saturday mornings to watch Signing Time on PBS Kids. At the time, signing was just for fun, but my husband and I probably learned in the vicinity of 200 signs just by watching this show (meant for children aged 1 to 8). Whenever we wanted to learn a new sign that wasn’t on the show, we’d just use one of the many free online ASL video dictionaries.
At some point later, I heard that signing was good for communicating with infants, because they learn to make gestures before they are capable of forming words. Many 12 month olds can wave hello, point with one finger, shake their head, and clap their hands without anyone formally showing the how, but the verbal vocabulary of a 12 month old is typically fairly limited. Theoretically, babies and toddlers that sign throw fewer tantrums, since tantrums are typically a result of frustration at not being able to express what they want. Also, signing babies are typically able to talk sooner and with richer vocabularies, since they have so much more practice at two-way communication at a young age. There are many other supposed benefits such as developing more self esteem and higher IQs, but the main reason why my husband and I wanted to try it was pure curiosity. Could a baby do it? Was it actually helpful in daily life?
The advice is to start signing with your baby as soon as possible, but not to expect them to sign back anytime before 6 months, so my husband I started signing things like “milk”, “bath”, “diaper change”, “mom” and “dad” right away with our first child. When we started feeding him at 4 months we introduced “eat”, “more”, and “all done”. To be honest, I was pretty discouraged, because while we of course believed our son to be brilliant (just kidding), at 9 months, he still wasn’t signing anything. Then one day, at 9 and a half months, when we were out for a walk, there were dogs barking in the distance and I noticed him making a little motion with his fingers that kind of looked like snapping. At first I was shocked, and then I was pretty sure it was just coincidence, but I figured, either way, I might as well go with it. So I snapped my fingers too and said, “That’s right, you hear a doggie!” Fortunately, we have a dog, so I got several opportunities to show him the sign for dog and within a week, he was very reliably “snapping” his fingers for “dog”.
I’d like to say that once he knew one sign, his vocabulary grew instantly, but it seemed like he still didn’t quite get it. However, when he was interested in something, he learned the sign (or an approximation of it that we could recognize). By the time he was 12 months old, he could sign 7 words: dog, music, dragon, fire, hat, candle, and milk (for nursing). It’s interesting to note that only one of these words (milk) is one that my husband and I had been consistently demonstrating for him throughout his life. The others were things that we showed him once or twice and he picked up right away. It was as if he didn’t find our choice of words particularly useful, because he didn’t really care when we were going to feed him, give him a bath, or change him. It’s like he knew we, the parents, had those things covered and would get around to them sooner or later. What he wanted to know was how to introduce topics of conversation that he was interested in. We figured out fairly quickly that he really wanted to talk about dragons, fire, and candles ALL the time. I was pretty sure our son was going to be a pyromaniac, but thankfully he’s discovered other areas of interest since then.
After his first birthday, our son’s signing and speaking vocabulary grew each day. By the time he was 15 months old our son could sign 63 words and say 24 words. His signs were more clear to us than his words, though both were approximations of the actual sign or word. For example he would say “oh no” for orange, but sign it pretty accurately. One of his most useful signs was for “hot” which he signed very well. It wasn’t until after he could sign “hot” that we realized we’d been burning our child (in his opinion) for his entire life and that he preferred his food cool and his bath water tepid. The cutest signs he learned were for “please” and “thank you” which he learned were very effective in getting him what he wanted. One of his funniest signing moments was after he sprained his arm and was wearing a cast. One day he started shaking his fist at me with his good arm without any associated anger. It took me about 5 instances before I figured out he was trying to sign “car” (like driving with your hands on the steering wheel), but could only use one hand. Every time a loud car would pass by outside, he would shake his good fist at me.
I would say our son increased his signing knowledge up until about 18 to 20 months at which point words took over. Now at two and a half, he can speak very well. The doctor tells us that at 3 years old, lots of kids sound like Elmo and still say things like “me do it”. Not in our house. Our son says, “I will do it, and I want you to go stand over there by the brown table so you’re not in my way.” Another interesting point is that while my son only ever used about half the signs we showed him, I discovered many months later that he actually knew the meaning of all of them. One day after he could talk pretty well I started asking if he knew what the signs for farm animals meant. Despite the fact that I hadn’t showed him these signs in months, he knew them all. What this means to me is that even the signs he never signed back (or at least not in a way I understood) were still useful for communication. If nothing else, they reinforced for him what I was talking about.
Overall, I’m extremely glad we started signing with our son. While I don’t think it ever helped in any life or death situations and he hardly ever used it for mundane reasons like telling us he was ready for a diaper change, I think it definitely enriched his babyhood by letting him “talk” to us about whatever he wanted. Now at 2 and a half, he sometimes has mini meltdowns, because he doesn’t get his way even though he’s perfectly capable of communicating what it is he wants. However, between 1 and 2 he hardly ever threw what could be called a tantrum. Maybe he’s just an easy-going, mellow kid. I think that’s part of it. However, I’m also fairly certain signing made his life easier, fuller, and more fun (for all of us).
Update Nov. 2013: Our son is now almost 4 years old and as expected, speaks extremely well. Everything he says is fully intelligible (though not always audible around strangers). His grammar is so good that every once in a while when he says something improperly, it sticks out as being extra adorable, such as “None people wanted to go on the slide today.”
Also, we now have an 18 month old daughter, who we also signed with as an infant. She never signed as much as her brother, but now speaks better than our son did at the same age. Because I’m a certified nerd, full month-to-month documentation of her signing and speech progress is here.
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