Teaching babies and toddlers to sign is a great way to empower young children. In the beginning, signing is a great way to avoid temper tantrums and give babies the ability to directly communicate their needs. Later, signs can provide a convenient and subtle “code” for families, and eventually can represent mastery of a second language.
When to Introduce Signing to Children
In terms of introducing sign, I don't believe there is a "perfect" age. I know with our first daughter, we had heard of baby signing, and thought it sounded interesting, but had heard that you had to be super-consistent all the time with using the signs for the baby to pick up on them. We didn't think we had the discipline for that, so we skipped it. It turns out that we were misinformed. We did later end up learning sign when her part-time daycare program introduced it when she started at 16 months.
With our second daughter, we knew better, and knew we wanted to sign earlier since we knew the benefits and also wanted the girls to be able to start communicating. We started introducing signs here and there at about 9 months, which is probably about the earliest you'd see any response. We weren't fanatic about it, but tried it every week or so, whenever we'd remember, until we felt we were seeing some glimmer of recognition. Then we got a little more serious about it. Once we knew she was grasping it, we introduced lots of signs, and watched in wonder as it took hold and her little world broadened almost overnight!
Does Signing Impact Speech Development?
Some parents are concerned that signing will delay speech. We were concerned about this as well, when our 16-month old was just starting to really talk and we thought the signing at her daycare might regress her speech development. In fact, just the opposite is true!
In some way, many children seem to be able to more quickly access the physical ability to sign faster than the language center to form a word. The sign comes out first and seems to "organize" them to be able to then access the word. But what is missing is the frustration that toddlers feel while waiting for that language to happen that can lead to yelling and hitting! With our little one, we were so excited when she started signing because we thought – Great! Now we can fill that months-long gap between the ability to sign and talk.
But the surprise was ours when we found the same effect, just sooner. She actually didn't sign exclusively for that long, because the signing brought on the talking earlier and more confidently, and by 13 months, she was talking more than our first had at an older age! (There were times when we have joked that we regret "teaching her to talk" so early, because she seemed then to expect to be listened to!)
How to Get Started Teaching Sign
There are lots of great signing programs out there for parents, both in person (like Baby Signs®), or for purchase for home use. However, I'm not certain that any of these are really necessary unless it particularly suits your learning style. The main thing is just to learn the signs yourself so that you can do them. My personal recommendation for this would be to purchase the "Signing Time" DVDs. This is a PBS program that doubles as outstanding children's programming (one of the few programs we let our daughters watch). The first three DVDs ("My First Signs," "Everyday Signs" and "Playtime Signs" will teach you most of what you need to know and your kids will eventually love the programs too. (They also seem to offer now a specific "Baby Signing Time" set. I have not seen these, but they may support the goal of teaching young babies more directly than the programs I have seen.) Our first daughter was crazy about Signing Time, which we recorded on our DVR, and has started well down the path of a second language with a signing vocabulary of literally hundreds of words.
To get started today, see my article in related links below, “Top Three Signs to Teach Your Baby or Child.”
Signing Time Volume 1-3 DVD Gift Set
Baby Signing Time DVD Gift Set