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Top Three Signs to Teach Your Baby or Child

American Sign Language, or a modified version, is a great way to communicate with a pre-verbal baby. Babies can learn to sign consistently well before they learn to talk. Among other benefits, signing can reduce tantrums that are due to frustration over an inability to express desires and be understood.

Signing is incredibly useful for creating a means of communication to communicate about needs. Beyond the practical, it can be used with an expanded vocabulary just to broaden a child’s delight in being able to share thoughts and observations. In general, I recommend starting with the practical.

In that spirit, here are the top three most important signs to teach a baby or young child. These signs are easy for a child to grasp as they are associated with immediate gratification of a desire. They see the sign, they get what they want and the learning goes quickly starting as early as 9-12 months of age.

Top Three Signs for Babies:

Milk -- opening and closing the fist vertically (like squeezing a cow's udder) – is one of the easiest signs for babies to mentally grasp and to physically perform. In nursing mothers, in particular, It is a perfect first sign. The trick to teaching sign is to find moments when you have a baby’s complete attention – when their gaze is focused on you and not distracted. The breastfeeding gaze that we nursing mothers know and love is one of the easiest times. If you repeatedly put the sign for milk in their visual path as the milk begins to let down, they grasp the concept very quickly.

My daughter began playing with the sign for milk with her own hand starting before a year, but not in a meaningful way. I think she just saw me doing it and thought it looked interesting. Right about a year, she started to sign it consistently as the milk would let down, and within two weeks she made the jump to requesting to nurse by using the sign.

More – pinching all five flattened finger pads together on both hands, then touching the fingertips of both hands together several times – is a great sign to teach during mealtime. Offer a small portion of a food and when the baby fusses at the end of the portion, say distinctly, do you want more while making the sign on the word more. Then immediately and in an exaggerated fashion, provide another portion and make the sign again saying, here is some more. This is my favorite sign to avoid fussy whining and tantrums. Once learned for food, more can be used in all sorts of situations. It can also be used to mean “again,” most commonly to replace undesirable behaviors meant to signal a desire to, for example, read a book again, or doing an enjoyable activity again.

All Done – spreading the fingers of both hands apart, holding them up palms toward the baby and twisting them gently at the wrist – can also be introduced at meal time. When you are seeing signals that mealtime is over, make the sign saying something like it looks like you are all done. Clear away all the food, clean up their face, and remove them from the location where they were eating. It can also be reinforced closing a book or cleaning up a toy, making the sign with the words all done, and putting it on the shelf. It can also be used at the end of a nursing session. Teaching this sign is a great way to avoid things like bowls of baby food thrown on the floor to express a desire to be done eating.

Even if teaching only these three signs, signing with your baby is an incredibly useful activity. It is also a wonderful gift to a pre-verbal baby to be able to express needs and desires in a consistent and understandable way.


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