Let the Lil’ Hands do the Talking

Is baby signing solely for infants with hearing or speech disabilities? In actual fact, it was established for healthy and perfectly normal babies. Tay Li Lian shares her journey signing with her eight-month old son.

Jayden was crying. I quickly ran through my mental checklist – Wet diaper? No. Hungry? No. Too hot? No. Too cold? No. Wind in tummy? No. I spent another five minutes, running through the checklist again and again but in vain. Instead, Jayden’s cry grew louder and I was getting frustrated. Hubby took over but the crying went on for the next 15 minutes until finally, he fell asleep. Hubby and I looked at each other, puzzled, wondering what caused our boy to cry.

The mother instinct in me believes that Jayden, even though he was three months old, was trying to tell us something, as crying was the only way for him to express himself. From then on, I searched extensively about communicating with a baby – from books to online forums, blogs and so forth. During this time, I got to know about the Baby Signs® Program through their website. The concept caught my attention and I started to wonder if this could work with Jayden.

A month later, as part of his development milestone, I noticed that Jayden started to coo and gesture more. Sometimes, he would vocalise his needs and wants, sounding almost as if he could speak. He would start softly and if he did not get any response, he would get louder and louder. This was when I realised that Jayden could express his needs and wants in ways other than crying. I then decided to teach him baby signingbased on the basics that I had learnt from the website. Jayden was very attentive each time I signed with him, which gave me the confidence to continue.

When Jayden was four and a half months old, I decided to take it to the next level, so I attended a parent workshop under the Baby Signs® Program. Although he was not able to sign back to me due to the limitation of his fine motor skills, I signed to him anyways. Following the tips and techniques learnt at the workshop, I created some baby-friendly signs and gestures which he could understand and do easily. I started to practise with him by extending his hand whenever he wants to be picked up and comforted. I would look into his eyes and say, “Give hand” while I put forth my palm and I paused for him to react in hopes that he could understand me. At the beginning, he would look at me inquisitively, but after a couple of weeks he smiled at me with his toothless grin and extended his hand. He responded! This marked the start of our baby signing journey.

Signing with Jayden

According to Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn, the authors of Baby Sign: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, parents can start as early as possible. However, it is advisable that parents do not focus exclusively on the age of their baby, as it is more important to note when their baby is showing interest in communicating. Each baby develops at a different pace, hence be patient.

I could not recall exactly when, but Jayden did show signs of interest to communicate when he was five months old. For instance, he would stretch both his arms, indicating that he wants to be picked up. Also, when he is hungry, he would let out a specific type of cry to ask for milk. With these indications, I believe that it was time to teach him baby signs. I turned on the Baby Signs ® My First Fun Signs DVD (containing signs like bath and sleep – based on daily activities) and sat Jayden down in front of the TV. The interactive animation and puppets caught his attention. As we observed each sign, I would point to the TV and say, “Hey Jayden, look. Bath.” I repeatedly imitated the sign for “bath” and say the word at the same time. He would turn his attention away from the TV and look at me. No response. Oh well, at least he looked at me.

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With a positive mindset, I practised the same signs with him daily and point whenever possible. Whenever he is about to take his bath, I would sign and point at his bath tub. At first, he did not show any signs of understanding. Over time, he understood what it meant. Now, when I sign “bath”, he would flap his arms (the same action he does to splash water in the tub) and give a big smile. By seven months, he understands signs like “bath” and “milk”. Although he has yet to sign back to us, I believe he has achieved his communication milestone by responding to us with gestures, baby-friendly signs and facial expressions.

Benefits of signing:

With mindfulness and patience, we bonded with Jayden. By listening with our hearts, we recognised and attended to his needs in a timely manner. By talking with our hands, Jayden understands what we want to say to him. After signing with him a couple of months, there are lesser frustration and disappointed moments. We are able to see his beautiful little world as he sees it. We are slowly experiencing the inherent benefits of baby signing.

In the course of two decades of research, Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn have uncovered a variety of ways in which babies and their caregivers benefit from signing.

  • Reduces frustration and builds trust
  • Allows babies to share their worlds
  • Strengthens the parent-infant bond
  • Reveals how smart babies really are
  • Promotes positive emotional development
  • Boosts babies’ self-confidence
  • Helps babies learn to talk
  • Jumpstarts intellectual development

Here are three signs that you can learn today.

Baby Signing In A Glance

The Baby Signs® Program was developed by two child development experts from the University of California, Davis – Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn – with the help of research support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The purpose of the program is simple: By helping babies and toddlers learn simple signs, parents and caregivers enable them to communicate important messages without having to resort to tears and tantrums.

In 1989, Acredolo and Goodwyn launched a study and found that children who had been encouraged to use signs actually learned to talk sooner, not later. Signing made learning words easier, not harder.

Dilemmas and Myths of using baby signs:

“Why would I want to teach my child sign language when he/she is a hearing (normal) baby?”

You are not teaching your child sign language per se. You are allowing your child to communicate effectively and baby signing is a tool to aid you and your child at a developmental phase where he has yet to vocalisehis intentions. A child’s ability to actively communicate at an early age would appear to accelerate his language development.

“Babies who sign are slow talkers. Would non-verbal communication discourage babies to talk?”

Not true. In fact, signing acts as a catalyst to jumpstart babies’ speech development. Babies who pick up sign language often learn how to speak faster than their non-signing peers. Reason being the action of signing involves saying each word out at the same time. Therefore, each time they learn to sign, these babies will learn a new vocabulary and its pronunciation. Consequently, they will also learn to say the word.

Good signing resources:

  • What Shall We Do with the Boo Hoo Baby? by Cressida Cowell
  • Biscuit’s New Trick by Alyssa Satin Capucille
  • Kitten for a Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  • Pat the Pony by Edith Kunhardt
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