Some parents get good at decoding which cries mean “I’m hungry” and “I need a nap.” For others, first words can’t come soon enough. Learning to communicate with your baby is a big piece of bonding. Long before babies are ready to speak, they may be able to express their needs through sign language. So is baby sign right for you? Here are the pros and cons to help you make a decision.
Baby Sign Language Pros
Fans of baby sign have noted quite a few benefits to the technique:
- Earlier communication: Coordinating tongue and mouth movements and articulating consonants is often more complex than making a hand gesture. Some babies can sign at around 6 months of age, months earlier than the typical first spoken word.
- Wider vocabulary: My baby’s first word and first sign happened fairly close together, but for a while she picked up signs faster than spoken words, doubling or tripling her vocabulary.
- Less frustration: This can vary depending on how sign fits your routine, but for many families, both parents and babies are less frustrated when they have a way to communicate needs.
- Cheap or free: You can look up baby sign tutorials for free on YouTube. Some parents make their own signs instead of following ASL.
- Can help other caregivers: A parent knows “ba” means “car.” A grandparent who sees the baby more rarely may have a hard time picking up baby talk. A sign like “more” (tapping fingertips together) can be easy for everyone to understand. This benefit depends on whether your family supports baby sign, but they may find it’s easier to learn and use signs than they think!
Baby Sign Language Cons
Of course, there are potential downsides to almost any technique, and baby sign is no exception. Consider these possible cons:
- Time commitment: You need to use signs frequently and diligently in order for baby signing to work. Inconsistent use is wasted effort, which can be frustrating for you and baby.
- Overreliance on sign: Some parents worry that signing will delay their child’s speech. My daughter always met spoken language milestones during the time she used signs, but it does take some consideration. Always speak while using the sign, so your baby learns the vocal word as well. I’ll admit I deliberately didn’t teach the sign for “Mama” so that my baby would have no choice but to learn to say it!
- Cultural appropriation: If you use ASL as your baby sign language, it’s important to try to be sensitive. Deaf people aren’t using ASL as a bridge to “real” speech–it’s their language. A handful of signs doesn’t make your baby “bilingual,” and baby sign can sometimes reinforce an incorrect idea that ASL is just a collection of nouns and verbs, instead of a fully developed language with its own grammatical structure. You want to avoid trivializing ASL or overstating your connection to Deaf culture just because you’re using some signs in your family, so that a helpful practice for you doesn’t unintentionally hurt other people.
How to Teach Baby Sign
If you’d like to give baby sign a try, getting started is simple!
- Start with signs that matter to your baby: I’m currently using two with my second baby: “nurse” and “ceiling fan.” One sign that’s practical, and one just to describe something she enjoys looking at. Your baby’s “fun” sign might be dog, cat, music, or something else she enjoys. Other practical signs include diaper, more, all done, or help.
- Say the word every time: This helps your baby understand that the sign and word relate to the same thing, which can promote speech development.
- Count imperfect signs: Babies don’t always replicate a sign exactly. As with spoken words, anything you can understand is close enough to count.
- Be patient: Signing takes time and practice. If you want to communicate with your baby through sign, don’t give up too early.