Sign Language for Parents and Toddlers – Just start somewhere!

(Guest post written by Erika Jones)

This blog already covers the many great reasons to pursue sign language for your baby or toddler (see Our Baby Sign Language Story: Benefits, Tips + Advice), so please look there for those thoughts. 

In this post, I’m going to cover a personal experience of using sign language, and a few tips I would have liked to know before I began. 

We started teaching sign language to our child mostly as a solution to my frustration.  My college degree is Communication Studies, and I’m female. I love communication!  Please give me those words. And here I had an adorable little person who was shrieking at me and throwing food on the floor. 

So, we started with “all done” and “more”, because I wanted to know! That’s the beauty of sign language for little ones. They have thoughts. You want to know them. Sign language gives you both that early method of expressing and “hearing” those thoughts. 

Recently, I started teaching “cereal” because pointing at the refrigerator might mean “milk”, “water”, “I want to play in that cold thing” (no!), or “I want the cheerios in the cabinet above the refrigerator”. I get tired of guessing pretty easily, and my son rarely finds milk and cheerios to be interchangeable 😉

For basic purposes, it can be easy to find the signs you want as well. One of my first resources was a library board book called “Baby Signs” by Joy Allen. Google will give you anything you want just by typing in “ASL” and the word you want. 

I love those moments of really being able to communicate. An added bonus for me is being able to start teaching manners early. Please and thank you really can make the world go round!

If you are considering using sign language with your little one, here are a couple key things to know and consider:

1. Depending on your determination and consistency and your child’s personality, each word may take a different amount of time to learn.

We said, signed, helped him sign, and rewarded “more” for weeks before he started repeating it back to us. It was his first word, and there was jubilation the day we realized he was truly asking for additional food!

For example:

  • “Please” took months. 
  • “Milk” suddenly showed up one day after we had tried and given up on that one. 
  • “Crocodile” and “gorilla” were accidental, because they were in books we were reading. 
  • “Book” itself took about 3 repetitions. He loves books!
  • We’re still working on “water” which was introduced at the same time as “milk”. 

2.  The signs your baby repeats may not look exactly like what you expect.

I have a friend who is a sign language interpreter and she says this is completely common. It’s similar to how a child will start with “ma, ma, ma”, move on to “mommy” and eventual “mom”. It’s a matter of fine motor control.

Our son’s initial “more” looked a lot like clapping, but now it’s much closer to the proper gesture. 

“Please” started out as tapping his belly, with both hands. Even in trying to help him sign it, bending his elbows to have his hand reach his chest met with structural resistance.  He hasn’t refined this one yet.

3. There are no set rules for which words or how many words to teach. 

If you and your child are both hearing, you can start anywhere that makes sense for you. “More” and “all done” are common, but you can also start out with “food” or “daddy” if you want. 

You only need to take it as far as makes sense for your family. If you both love it and catch on well, keep at it as fast and as long as you want. Language learning is an excellent skill at any age! If three words meet your needs, than you’ve still taught three words before your child can verbally speak. 

One caveat is that some signs may truly be too similar to be easily used by very young people. “Pacifier” and “food/eating” differ in only the number of fingers that meet your thumb, so you may be better off just picking one of those until your child has more fine motor control. 

Just remember…

Your child really does understand a lot of what you say long before he can respond verbally!  Sign language can give you the opportunity to truly communicate.

Baby sign language tips for parents of toddlersAbout the Author:

Erika Jones lives with her son and husband in Minnesota, where she is a freelance writer and virtual assistant. She has always enjoyed language and communication and can count to 12 in five languages. She can be reached on Facebook and LinkedIn or at erikasoontobejones@gmail.com