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What is Baby Sign Language and Does it Really Work?

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Baby sign language has been a thing for years, but it may seem unnecessary if your child doesn't have hearing loss—or it may sound like over-the-top parenting. Thankfully, neither of these are true. Any baby can benefit from sign language, and it serves as a valuable parenting tool that helps bridge that gap from wanting something and being able to actually say it—which can be super frustrating for both parents and their babies.

I'm a mom of four kids and I've used sign language with three of my tiny tots. I realized pretty quickly that my then 1-year-old picked up signs quickly, and it reduced his frustration level soon after he grasped the concept. I thought it was so awesome that I started a website on the subject. A few years later, I wrote a book about baby signing, and the year after that, I wrote another book. The three babies I signed with all had a signing vocabulary of more than 100 signs by the time they dropped them in favor of speech, and it remains one of my favorite parenting memories to date.

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Here are some of the questions I am most frequently asked by parents still unsure of the whole baby-signing thing:

So ... what signs do you use?

Most parents in the U.S. use signs that come from American Sign Language (ASL). While ASL can look and seem complicated, babies don't need a baby-fied version of sign language. You talk to your baby using the same language you use to speak to adults, right? When they start to speak, they will approximate as best they can, and then they eventually sort it out and refine those syllables into regular spoken English. The same thing happens with signs. (Here's one of my all-time favorite online ASL dictionaries.)

When do you start?

Technically, you can start signing with your baby at any age. Although signing with a 2-month-old baby won't really get you any results any time soon, it won't hurt, and it can also get you into the habit of using signs on the regular, as it doesn't always come naturally. The ideal age is around 6 to 8 months. Babies have usually mastered a few physical milestones by then, such as sitting up or crawling, and are ready to take in some sign language.

What signs do you start with?

When you think about your baby's typical day, what does she do or experience? If one of your answers was drink milk (whether from breast or bottle), you've discovered one of the most popular starting signs in the whole wide world—milk. Babies drink milk frequently, and since they love it, it's motivational. It also happens a lot, making it the perfect first sign. Other popular starting signs are bed (or sleep), bath and eat.

How do you sign with your baby?

Don't worry, Mama—you don't have to sit your baby down at a tiny desk and show him flashcards to teach him to sign. When your baby is hungry, or you're preparing his bottle, sign milk within his line of sight. Sign it again as he drinks or nurses. After a period of time (this can take a few days or several weeks), he'll make that connection and will attempt to sign it himself when he's hungry. And the best part? He may indicate hunger without crying. How beautiful is that?

The same thing goes for the other signs you teach. Before you give him a bath, sign bath. Does he want more food? Sign more. Is he entranced by the family dog? Sign dog when he sees it. Always speak the word when you sign, too, to help his brain process even more physical cues that can help make the connection between the spoken word, what it represents, and its sign.

How many signs do you teach at a time?

Most parents choose anywhere from three to around eight signs to work on. This helps in a few ways. While babies don't get overwhelmed or confused with a ton of words or signs, moms who don't already know a lot of ASL vocabulary may find it easier to learn and remember just a handful at a time. Once Baby has mastered those signs, you can then add a few more.

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Won't sign language make it hard to learn to talk?

No. It may seem like teaching a young baby to sign means that you're not teaching her to talk. It also may seem like signs can be a forever substitute for spoken words and a baby will take the "easy" way out. After all, why bother trying to speak when signing produces results?

These are really nothing more than myths. Think about it. Your baby has learned to move along the floor, whether it be a simple scoot, a formal crawl or a weird combo that nobody can replicate. Will this prevent him from eventually pulling up and walking? After all, why bother walking when crawling works just as well? The answer is a big fat nope, and as language acquisition is a physical feat to accomplish, it works the same way. It can also lead to a more vast vocabulary and can even prompt a baby to start talking earlier, which is pretty sweet.

Bottom line? Signing is fun and can lead to better communication well before a baby has the fine motor skills required for speech. Less frustration for both Mom and Baby is well worth learning a few signs, and after you learn a few animal signs, your trips to the zoo will never be the same.

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