Baby Sign Language

Baby sign language saved our sanity. Sadie’s basic needs were shrouded in mystery until we taught her a dozen or so hand signals that are part of baby signing -- a system based on American Sign Language, only designed for hearing tots --. Was she hot? Cold? Hungry? Tired? Who knew? Maybe Sadie herself didn’t even know. All she did was cry. (And so did we.)

Baby signing, which has been around for dozens of years, takes advantage of the fact that hand-eye coordination develops before verbal skills. Picture the baby who can wave “hello” but can’t yet say, “I need a cookie, please!” While babies may utter their very first words around 11 months, they have cognitive skills beginning around 6 months and can use hand gestures to communicate. Sadie came late to talking, forming her first word (“duck”) at 18 months, so we got a lot of mileage out of those baby signs.

Signing “eat” (with all fingers together tapping lips) told us Sadie was hungry. Tapping a finger on an open palm meant “more, please.” Brushing palms up and down meant “all done.” Are you sensing a theme here? Sadie also tipped an imaginary glass to show she was thirsty, did “hoo hoo” (two staccato exhales) to say her bath water was too hot, and placed her hands together by her head to say she was sleepy.

As a fringe benefit, communicating helped put Sadie more in touch with her needs and wants, and gave her a role in getting them met. She grew more confident in her ability to communicate and also more trusting of us—because we were finally meeting her needs instead of frantically trying every trick in the book to no avail.

There are some 600 baby signs, including for “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “diaper,” “cat,” “dog,” “cookie,” and more. If you’re inclined to use them with your infant, you’ll find that books, flashcards, dictionaries and wall charts are helpful, but don’t feel like you have to become a pro to derive a benefit.

Experiment with a few baby signs and see how it goes. At the very least, you’ll have fun -- and maybe even learn a few of the thoughts stirring inside that cute, little head.

by Aviva Patz