By: Barbara Desmarais

We are all familiar with the frustration of not knowing what a pre-verbal baby is trying to tell us when they’re crying, whining, or screaming. We can now be thankful for the work of Joseph Garcia and others who capitalized on the fact the deaf babies can communicate their needs through Sign Language much earlier than their hearing counterparts can through speech. Sign Language classes for babies are popping up all across Canada and the United States. Scientific research tells us that babies can understand and express much more than we previously thought. Sign Language can be introduced babies as young as seven months old. As well, contrary to what we might think, using signs often accelerates speech development. This is a documented fact and in my experience with teaching babies and parents to sign, many parents have reported to me that their babies are using words that they also have signs for.

There are two schools of thought surrounding the introduction of Sign Language to babies. There are those who are choosing to teach babies American Sign Language, which is an established, standardized language used by deaf people in North America. As well there are people who instead are electing to use home-made signs and simply calling them “baby signs” supporting the notion that using signs with babies is only a temporary bridge between the non-verbal and verbal period of development. The advantage of using ASL (American Sign Language) is that it is a standardized language so any baby or toddler learning it will have the same signs as their peers who are also using ASL. We know as well that many child care centres have introduced sign language into their program so having ASL signs means there is consistency from centre to centre.

Teaching ASL to babies is proving to be a wonderful way for parents and their babies to interact and it enhances the whole bonding process. Although research tells us that babies can sign when they are as young as seven months old, I’ve noticed in my experience teaching classes, that they will spend many weeks observing and absorbing the signs before they actually start using them. The signs they typically pick up first are the signs for “more,” “milk,” “bath,” and “bed.” Parents never cease to be amazed when they see the first signs emerging. Often once they start using two or three signs, soon after, they will start to use more and more. They key is for parents to use the signs at home as much as possible so their baby can learn through association. It often feels awkward to parents in the beginning because they have a sense that their baby isn’t paying any attention to them and it seems unnatural to be using their hands. I often tell parents that we don’t stop talking to our babies just because they appear to not understand what we’re saying. Incorporating signs into simple songs is a fun and easy way to learn. We very often see babies calm almost instantly when we sing and sign to them.

For more information and supporting research on signing with babies go to www.Sign2Me.com. Apart from information, they sell many different teaching aids that you can purchase online.

About the author
Barbara Desmarais, ECE, is a Sign Language teacher, and an ASL for Babies instructor. She is also a parenting and life coach. Her web site is  www.theparentingcoach.com.